A Tunisian village’s fight for running water

SBIKHA, Tunisia: Outside a small mosque in central Tunisia, women queue for one of their village’s last water sources, a pipe meant to irrigate crops but now a lifeline in a parched region.
“We just need something to drink,” Ribh Saket, 56, said under the punishing summer sun as she placed a canister under a makeshift faucet connected to a water supply.
Like its neighbor Algeria and large areas of the Mediterranean region, Tunisia is suffering from “drought warning conditions” according to the European Drought Observatory.
But while drought and rising temperatures are affecting the region as a whole, in rural areas, where poverty rates tend to be higher, the effects are doubly so.
Tunisia’s national water network supplies almost all of the country’s urban areas, but only about half of the rural population.
The other half relies heavily on wells built by local agrarian associations that officially work under the Ministry of Agriculture.
“We were marginalized,” said Saket, whose village of about 250 families had one such well.
But it was closed in 2018 due to unpaid electricity bills – a common problem among agrarian associations – leaving villagers without pumps to pump water for their community in the Sbikha area, about 30 kilometers north of Kairouan. .
Since then, families have said they rely on water from wells originally dug by local farmers to irrigate their land.
None of these wells have been approved by the state because they are often contaminated with pollutants and unfit for human consumption due to improper construction and testing.

Ali Kammoun, 57, with a glistening scar running the length of his abdomen, said he had undergone two operations for water-borne diseases.
“Half of us have kidney problems,” said his neighbor Leila Ben Arfa. “The water is polluted, but we have to drink it.”
The 52-year-old woman said she and other women “carry canisters on their backs.”
Tunisia, in its sixth year of drought, ranks as the 33rd most water-scarce in the world, according to the World Resources Institute.
The World Bank says that by 2030, the Middle East and North Africa will fall below the threshold of “absolute water scarcity” of 500 cubic meters per person per year.
This amount is already under 450 cubic meters per inhabitant in Tunisia.
More than 650,000 Tunisians, mainly in rural areas, do not have running water at home, with nearly half of them living far from a public water source, according to a 2023 United Nations report.
Bottled water, which costs about half a Tunisian dinar (16 cents) per liter, remains a luxury for families whose governor is the poorest in Tunisia.
“We have to find a solution,” said Djaouher Kammoun, a 26-year-old farmer who shares water from a well with other villagers.
“Most families go to fetch water when we are working and sometimes we cannot do both,” he said, describing the system as unsustainable.
According to the National Agricultural Observatory (ONAGRI), about 60 percent of wells across the country are privately and illegally dug.
But while the practice may provide a temporary – albeit unhealthy – solution for some, it exacerbates water scarcity.
A 2022 ONAGRI study found that Tunisia’s deep aquifers were used at 150 percent of their recharge rate and underground aquifers at 119 percent.

“Today we are in the same spiral, the same vicious circle, with the same problems,” said Minyara Mejbri, the Kairouan coordinator for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES).
Villagers protested, blocked roads and complained several times – all to no avail.
“The governorate said we already have access to drinking water,” said Saief Naffati, 34, who is leading his community’s efforts to resolve the crisis.
“They told us that if we protested, we should confess because the National Guard would arrest us.”
At their wits’ end, many left the village, Naffati added.
Among them is his brother Raouf, who now lives in the coastal city of Hammamet.
Saleh Hamadi, a 55-year-old farmer who also has problems distributing water from a well, said “at least 150 families have left.”
“Most of our youth have moved out and left their elders alone,” he said.
“Why is this still a problem in 2024? Why are we still thirsty?’

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