Northwestern Tunisia: too much water, so many thirsty people (Reportage)
16/09/2020 17:48, TUNIS/Tunisia
(TAP - By Mariem Khadhraoui) - Once in Fernana, a small beautiful village in the region of Jendouba (northwestern Tunisia), where there are hundreds of natural and artificial sources of water (fresh fountains, dams, hill lakes), you may find the United Nations figures about Tunisia's water scarcity, hard to believe.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and other specialists, Tunisia is below the absolute water paucity line, with a per capita endowment of about 450 Mcm per year.

The country has, however, a valuable hydraulic infrastructure with more than 37 dams (total capacity 2.5 km3), 230 hill dams 950 hill lakes, and 138,000 water wells in operation in 2017, according to Fanack water.com.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the annual average rainfall in Tunisia reaches 36 km3, with rainfall amounts varying between 1,500 mm in the northern regions to less than 100 mm in the south. 80% of rainfall is recorded during the period from October to March.

Ironic fact!

Despite being the region where the highest precipitation is  recorded, with an annual rainfall that exceeds 1000 millimeters per year, thousands of locals in the small villages around Fernana, and in the Northwestern area, are suffering from water shortage and have no access to drinking and even irrigation water.

"This paradoxical situation is the result of the failure of the government's water policies in addition to the mismanagement of water distribution and the lack of political will,» said Alaa Marzougui, coordinator of the Tunisian Water Observatory, a Tunisian NGO, launched on March 22, 2016, on World Water Day.

According to Mr. Marzougui, around 250,000 people in Tunisia have no access to water.

This figure could be higher, because, as he said, "the statistics often mentioned on the water supply are not very accurate and should be reviewed."

"Why don't the locals in Fernana and other parts of Jendouba benefit from the SONEDE (main water distribution utility in Tunisia) network, since the water sources are close and the connection's cost will certainly be less expensive than water transfer operations? These are Tunisian citizens who pay their taxes and have the right to water.

It's is one of their fundamental rights," he added.

In his opinion, the state should not calculate the cost of a duty to its citizens. It should calculate, however, the cost of other imported services and products, not water. "The authorities must guarantee water access to all, even if it is for only one family living in a remote place," he told TAP.

"It is also necessary to take care of border areas residents, as part of an approach of decentralization and fight against emigration," he believes.

A hard way to water

Wherever you walk, in the branch roads of the village of Fernana, you meet people on donkey back's carrying plastic 20-liter cans and containers to bring drinking water from the many nearby and faraway fountains.

About 20 kilometres from Fernana, lie the «Douars,» of « Ouled Mfadda,» « Halima » and «Jwawda,» rural agglomerations of about 5000 inhabitants. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIgEUBTOGn4

Not a single family is enjoying a home tap water despite being next to one of the largest water dams in Tunisia, the huge dam of Beni Mtir, in the south-west of Ain Draham, Jendouba.

This dam was designed by the Swiss engineer Alfred Stucky in 1953, with a total capacity of 73 million m3 (53 million m3 on average2).
It supplies the capital Tunis with drinking water, deemed to be the sweetest in the country.

The region of Jendouba is also home to the big dam of Bouhertma, built in 1976 and extended since May 2019 to a total capacity of 145 million m3.

The total cost of expansion works was about 67.672 million dinars. This project may not change the fate of the locals who remain prevented from drinking water.

What a disappointment!

A few years ago, locals were pleased to see the authorities installing water pipes to be connected to their houses.

The project was launched as part of a water supply strategy through neighbouring water users associations (groupements de développement agricole or GDA), local governmental bodies responsible for both water distribution and taxation.

"But, what a disappointment! only a couple of weeks later, water ceased running due to the failure of the adopted system,» said Faisal Mizrigui, a local who took part in protests against  water shortage in the villages around Fernana claiming the right to have access to clean drinking water, as stipulated in the new Tunisian constitution (art 44).

He also added that some protestors were taken to the court, to be prosecuted for claiming their right to clean water.

"About 13 protestors risk a jail sentence in their trial at the Court of Jendouba on Wednesday, September 16,» he said.

The local authorities are accusing them of trouble making and even terrorism, as Faisal mentioned.
In other regions, the authorities are working hard to secure drinking water during the summer months by improving water resources, including water treatment plants and seawater desalination plants in the south and the central east of Tunisia.

Several programmes are planned to improve drinking water supply in rural areas in these regions. But, nothing seems to be done for the areas of Jendouba, according to Faisal Mizrigui.

"If you want to know why this happens to us, just look at this poster, said a 30-year-old man thirty age old man, requesting anonymity to speak freely, pointing at a yellow poster of a large water supply project. (Photo)

"Behind the entire water crisis, there is a story of bribery, of a theft of public funds or of corrupted public works contractors,» he added. 

The young man who was next to a natural water fountain, asked mockingly « if there are still no worksites, or water for thousands of thirsty households, where have the billions allocated by donors gone? »

Alaa Marzougui said underprivileged people from regions suffering from water paucity no longer trust the authorities and they are right, because they no longer believe in their pretexts.

A study by the World Bank in 2018, found that the richest 20% of households in Tunisia, consume four times more water than the poorest 20% and therefore benefit more from public subsidies.

To remedy this inequity, experts from the World Bank recommend «applying differentiated prices, depending on whether you are a small or a large consumer.»

Water access, possible solutions!

Abdelhamid Amami, a founder and member of the Tunisian NGO "Association for Sustainable Agriculture," find the rainwater harvesting technique very suitable to guarantee water access for the rural areas in the northwestern Tunisia.

"Of course, it is a truly sustainable solution to supply drinking water and irrigate trees and animals. In many places in the country, it is the only solution," he said.

"In the south, specifically Tataouine and Medenine, women do not walk miles to fetch safe water and we do not hear them complaining. They learn to use rainfall harvesting techniques and they are satisfied," he added.

According to him, we have a lot to learn from ancestral techniques and also from those adopted by other countries to guarantee access to safe clean water in this global context of climate change.

Rainwater harvesting system, also called rainwater collection system or rainwater catchment system, is a technology that collects and stores rainwater for human use. It ranges from simple rain barrels to more elaborate structures with pumps, tanks, and purification systems.

This technique is possible but it must be framed, according to Tunisian water Observatory.

"The populations of the north do not have this tradition of collecting water like those of the south. Changing mentalities would probably be key to changing realities and making difference," Mr. Amami said in conclusion.

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