Heatwave and drought leave Tunisia farmers struggling to survive

Farmers in northern Tunisia say conditions are getting progressively worse despite government efforts to combat climate change.

Tunisia, which draws the bulk of its water from rainfall, is especially vulnerable to shortfalls in rainfall [File: Jihed Abidellaoui/Reuters]

Tunis, Tunisia – Zohra Naffef has been working her husband’s farm near Ghar el-Melh in northern Tunisia for years.

With her husband now sick, and her family having moved on, she does this unaided.

The heat is not helping. Already four years into a drought, Monday’s peak of 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) has left water short in supply and the future uncertain.

Conditions for farmers are getting progressively worse, she says. However, between government policy and climate change, they are becoming impossible.

“There’s a serious water scarcity here,” Naffef told Al Jazeera. “The wells are getting dry and the government is putting too many restrictions on water policies.”

“You’re now banned from irrigating your vegetables using water from those old wells,” she said, though cautioning that water remained for animals and trees. “Of course, farmers will disobey these new orders. They need to save their lands. We’re now trying to help each other.”

Naffef explains that neighbours help each other, if, for example, one has permission to draw water from a well, they will covertly pass some to a few of their fellow farmers.

The extreme weather currently engulfing much of southern Europe reaches into North Africa, too and, as Rhodes burns, Tunisia bakes.

Even before climate change and shifting weather patterns increased temperatures in Tunisia, the North African state, like its counterparts in Southern Europe, was in trouble. Four years of scant rainfall have taken their toll.

Tunisia, which draws the bulk of its water from precipitation, is vulnerable to shortfalls in rainfall.

Satellite footage of Tunisia’s water reserves taken before the current bout of extreme heat paints a stark picture. Levels in none of Tunisia’s reservoirs exceeded 31 percent.

The capital and its surroundings have been earmarked as of special risk of water scarcity, while the country’s largest freshwater reserve, the Sidi Salem reservoir west of Tunis, is only about 16 percent full.

None of this is to say that the government has been idle.

In late March, SONEDE, the agency that manages Tunisia’s water, announced that it would be cutting supplies to households from 9pm nightly, and prohibited its use for washing cars and cleaning public spaces.

Those found to be infringing upon the new laws faced a fine and imprisonment of anything of up to six months.

President Kais Saied, meanwhile, has already placed the blame for the water shortages on his political opponents.

‘Losing faith’

Last winter was exceptionally dry in Tunisia. That was followed by a March – a key month for farmers where freshly planted crops are irrigated – that was the second driest since 1970. In northern Tunisia, once the breadbasket of the Roman world, farmers are anticipating a “catastrophic” harvest for cereals, such as wheat and barley.

Across much of the rolling hills that define swaths of Tunisia’s northern landscape, entire stretches of land lie barren, the soil too dry to sustain the shoots planted earlier this year.

“Farmers are losing faith,” Naffef said. “When I talk to them and try to comfort them and tell them things can still be improved, I feel they’re not convinced.”

Exacerbating the problem of shortfalls in rainfall is ailing infrastructure, often decades old. “Many of the pipes are very old, dating back to the 1950s,” Imen Rais, the World Wildlife Fund’s freshwater programme manager, said. “And it hasn’t really been maintained since the [2011] revolution, leading to over a third being lost in transit.”

In addition to the problems of failing infrastructure is Tunisia’s decision in the 1970s to switch the bulk of its agricultural production to citrus fruits, off-season vegetables and various fruits, at the expense of traditional crops, such as cereals and legumes.

While ideal for export, the newer crops require vast amounts of water to sustain, pushing their availability and cost far beyond the reach of the average Tunisian pocket, leaving the population with little choice but to get by on a diet of cheap bread and pastries made from imported wheat.

With so much of its landscape given over to more profitable crops for export, Tunisia must rely upon imports of grains to feed its population. The outcome, like its reliance upon rainwater, is to leave Tunisia especially vulnerable to events, such as drought, climate change and the war in Ukraine.

“Agriculture is not a priority for the government,” Aram Belhadj, an economist from the University of Carthage, told Al Jazeera. “The government does support them,” buying their crop at rates set in Tunis and largely unreflective of circumstances, such as war or drought, “but nowhere near enough”, he said.

“Instead, it prioritises the product, and not the producer, or farmer, which distorts the market. These are the people we need to incentivise,” he added. “Production is at its lowest now [and has been] for as long as anyone can remember. It’s certainly lower than in the 90s and 2000s”, when the output from one stretch of land would far outstrip its modern equivalent.

For Tunisia, mired in public debt and with several international loans due soon, any additional strain upon the public purse risks stretching it to breaking point.

“The outcome is that Tunisia must now pay to import these goods, which, as prices go up, places an intense strain on the public finances,” Belhadj said.

Nevertheless, in Ghar el-Melh, Naffef remains philosophical. “Farmers keep on working their lands because it means a lot to them,” she said.

“That’s the one thing they’ll keep on doing, regardless of all conditions. They’d borrow money and do anything to keep planting. They hope each new year brings better rainfall percentages. It’s all they hope for.”

Source: Al Jazeera