Protesters Demand Water, Amid Heat and Pandemic

Two people traveling to gather water using donkeys and plastic containers in a rural area in Beja. Photograph by Hichem Ben Boubaker, shared on the Facebook page of the Observatoire Tunisien de L'Eau on August 25, 2020.

When the community of Oulad Nasr, a village in the Kairouan governorate, blocked National Road Number 3 for several hours on August 10, local authorities ignored them, they said. Some drivers on the road, which connects Kairouan to Gafsa, accused them on social media of burglary. National Guard agents eventually came and advised protesters to delegate some representatives to talk directly to officials.

Later that day, three protesters met with the local delegate from the central government to Chebika [the “delegation”—a local administrative unit—that Oulad Nasr falls under], the mayor of Abida [the newly-established municipality to which the village belongs], a representative of the national water distribution utility SONEDE [its French acronym], and a representative of the state-owned electricity company STEG.

A promise emerged from the meeting that took place in the headquarters of the Chebika delegation, protester Mohamed Cherif Jelassi told Meshkal: by the end of September, STEG will electrify the neighboring well of Ain El-Bidha and SONEDE will deliver the well’s fresh water to almost 180 families in the village so they can consume and pay bills just like other citizens in urban areas.

But the villagers said they are tired of promises. They have been demanding access to fresh and clean water for years, even before this human right was guaranteed by article 44 of the 2014 constitution.

“We are not asking for much. We want the minimum,” Jelassi, who is an unemployed nursing graduate said, adding that the water problem was at the root of all their troubles.

The local primary school has no running water to flush toilets and wash hands, so young pupils often bring bottles of water with them. Jelassi thinks this is one of the main causes of poor health among the children and their dropping out of school.

“When I meet the school teacher, he says he is willing to travel 150 kilometers daily to get to school and that his students are smart and nice. His only problem is the lack of running water,” he said.

Poverty and a lack of basic services can also take its toll on mental health. Oulad Nasr primary school is not an exception in a governorate that has the highest rate of underage and adult suicide in the country. As reported by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights [FTDES by its French acronym], out of 268 suicides and suicide attempts listed in Tunisia in 2019, 48 occurred in Kairouan.

According to the same non-governmental organization, 175 primary schools in Kairouan governorate lack proper drinking water. Many of the schools are supplied water through large cisterns that do not meet minimum health standards. Otherwise, the water is delivered by neighboring Water Users Associations [Groupements de Développement Agricole or GDA], local governmental bodies that are responsible for both water distribution and taxation, FTDES revealed in its October 2019 report on environmental justice.

In that report, Minyara Mejbri, FTDES’ Kairouan’s officer, highlights the correlation between the numerous hepatitis outbreaks in the region’s rural schools and poor water quality and lack of sanitation.

Now, as the start of the school year approaches, Mejbri is particularly concerned by the looming danger of Covid-19 in Kairouan’s schools.

“Another virus would be too much. If Covid-19 continues to spread until mid-September, schools, students and teachers, will be the first victims,” she told Meshkal.

Covid-19 Amplifying Inequalities

During the first two-month lockdown, Mejbri went out into the field and saw the impact of the virus on rural communities “that have been already suffering so much injustice compared to urban communities.”

“While the urban woman may return home after work and turn on her kitchen tap, the rural woman has to walk for many kilometers to get two cans of water for drinking, washing and combating Covid-19 and other viruses,” Mejbri said.

Mejbri noted rural women suffer from precarious living conditions. For many who work as seasonal farmhands, hazardous conditions include high incidents of lethal road accidents during transportation and very low wages.

In Oulad Nasr for example, villagers must walk two kilometers to buy the water from the nearest GDA. According to Jelassi, the water they get there is salty, so most of them have to buy 20-liter plastic cans from water sellers. 

For Nidhal Attia, who coordinates the program of ecology and natural resources governance at Heinrich Böll Stiftung-Tunisia, the salinization of water tables is one of the consequences of global warming. “By 2030, almost 50 percent of coastal groundwater will become salty due to sea level rise,” he told Meshkal.

While SONEDE delivers water mainly to urban areas, remote rural areas have been supplied, since 1999, by GDAs.

In that year, GDAs were created in order to connect local farmers within a certain irrigated area.

In theory, managing teams are transparently elected and the decision-making process is democratic. Managers are entrusted with ensuring the maintenance of the water supply system.

In reality, as explained in a webinar organized on June 13 by civil society groups the Tunisian Observatory of Economy, the Tunisian Observatory of Water, and Nomad 08, the 20-year experience of GDAs shows several weaknesses: management conflicts are common, some users steal water by diverting pumps, and the average billing recovery rate does not exceed 40 percent. As a consequence, the managers of GDAs cannot pay their bills to STEG and other equipment suppliers. As a result, GDAs get their electricity cut off and irrigation systems deteriorate.

As part of anti-Covid-19 measures undertaken in March, most governors, including Kairouan’s governor, agreed with STEG to restore electricity to indebted GDAs so that they could supply rural communities with water in times of health crisis.

However, Mejbri told Meshkal that several GDAs did not resume their work during the lockdown. The failures are structural, and, with the exception of a few successful experiences, GDAs are a “brake on development,” she said.

Mejbri’s recommendation is for the outright dissolution of GDAs and their replacement by a public service structure, a kind of rural SONEDE.

But failed GDAs are still only one aspect of Kairouan’s water crisis.

Water for Export Crops, not Thirsty Humans

“On the one hand, the ministry of agriculture prides itself on breaking records in fruit and vegetable production in Kairouan. The state encourages crops that consume too much water. On the other hand, when citizens protest to demand clean water, they are told that the country is facing a water stress,” said Mejbri.

For her it is not a crisis of supply. The governorate has three large dams—Nebhana, Sidi Saad and El-Houareb, hundreds of wells, dozens of springs and private factories that package and sell the region’s mineral water.

According to, the open data platform of the Ministry of Agriculture, Kairouan also has 71 “hill lakes”. Hill lakes are artificial reservoirs designed to conserve water and soil. The principle of a hill lake consists of building a dike around a natural basin where water flows from the mountains or the hills. The dike retains the water and thus forms a “hill lake”. This reservoir is then equipped with pipes and pumps that irrigate the surrounding agricultural land. The lake thus provides water to farmers throughout the year.

As explained by Tunisian hydrologists Salah Selmi and Slah Nasri in a conference paper presented in 1997, the technique of hill lakes was introduced at the beginning of the 20th century in the region of Bizerte in the north of the country. After being abandoned for a fairly long period, the ministry of agriculture used the method in the 1960s in order to protect downstream areas against erosion. It was not until the early 1990s that hill lakes became a strategic option for recovering rainwater, which keeps getting scarcer from year to year.

Sabria Barka and Samia Mouelhi, two researchers who specialize, respectively, in eco-toxicology and bio-ecology, confirmed this downward trend in a study they published in 2016.

“By 2050, rainfall will decrease by 2 percent to 16 percent over the entire country…By 2100 the situation will worsen and we can expect decreases in rainfall of between 10 percent and 35 percent over the entire territory and in some regions in the center and the south it will even shrink by 60 percent,” the two scientists predict in their study.

 “While we are working on the composition of the government, with all that follows in terms of discussions and divergent positions, there are citizens who only ask for water,” then Prime Minister designate Hichem Mechichi, said on August 10, the same day people in Ouled Nasr went out to protest.

Mechichi’s government officially began its work on September 3. After parliamentary recess ends on September 30, members of parliament are scheduled to discuss a new draft law that will overhaul water governance and sanitation.

“The debate over this new legislation would be heated because water is a sensitive issue that is related to national security,” Nidhal Attia, of Heinrich Böll Stifting-Tunisia told Meshkal.

A Controversial New Law

The new legislation will replace the water code which was adopted in 1975 and then amended in 2001. According to Attia, it should therefore be comprehensive and above all take into account national and international legislative developments: the right to water and other human rights enshrined in the constitution, the local government code of 2018, the right of future generations to water and the impact of climate change.

Attia said these considerations are not clear enough in the government draft law and the gaps are already numerous.

In addition to the ambiguity of some articles and concepts and the creation of several new structures for water management, Attia expressed concern about main two weaknesses in the government’s draft law. The first relates to oasis systems, whose specificity was recognized by the old code but are not mentioned in the new text. The second is that the draft law lacks an approach to gender.

“Women in rural areas play an essential role in water management and the new code must absolutely recognize the importance of their input,” Attia insisted.

In addition to Heirich Böll Stiftung-Tunisia, several other civil society groups have already analyzed the government proposal. The NGO Nomad 08 and the Tunisian Observatory of Water, even proposed an alternative draft law that emerged from numerous civil society forums across the country and supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s North Africa office.

In its report on August water protests and Covid-19, Nomad 08 listed 233 protests across the country. Kairouan ranked first with 23 protests, including that of Oulad Nasr.