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Lessons for Cop28 from Tunisia’s water crisis

The Arab region is home to the majority of economies that will face absolute water scarcity by 2040

A water vendor in Tunisia opening a well Chedly Ben Ibrahim/Hans Lucas via Reuters Connect
A water vendor in Tunisia opening a well. The country averted a water crisis through strict policy but lessons can be learned

In April this year, Tunisia faced an unprecedented water shortage and the outlook for the semi-arid country looked grim.

Another climate change-induced, drought-stricken winter forced the Tunisian authorities to shut down urban water supply from 9.00pm until 4.00am. Farmers were told to stop irrigating their fields, causing concerns over food supplies.

The situation was made more alarming by near-empty reservoirs with levels below 20 percent of their historic capacity. But, thanks to government measures and the sixth wettest June since 1950, an all-out crisis has been avoided. 

At the same time, Tunisia is rapidly expanding its supply through new desalination and wastewater treatment plants. These should add capacity of 1 billion cubic litres per day by 2027.

However, this is a race against time. The desalination plant in Sidi Abdelhamid was supposed to provide drinking water to 2.3 million residents in the Sousse area by mid-2023. It has not officially opened.

Moreover, much of Tunisia’s water infrastructure dates to the 1950s, which means pipes are rusty and leaking.

As a result, 50 percent of water in irrigation pipes and 30 percent in urban networks is lost – it is “non-revenue water”.

The good news is that Tunisia’s population will not dramatically grow compared with other countries unless there is a large influx of refugees from sub-Saharan Africa or the Arab world. 

Facing reality

Tunisia is not alone in terms of challenging water prospects, but it provides useful lessons. 

The Arab region is home to the majority of economies around the world that will face absolute water scarcity – defined as 500 cubic metres per person per year – by 2040.

Countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Yemen and Iran, plus all the GCC economies, face similar challenges.

Water is quickly running out and supply must be drastically increased to meet basic needs.

This requires substantial investment in new desalination plants to turn seawater into drinking water and water recycling facilities to increase the lifespan of each litre withdrawn from ground and surface-water reservoirs.

It is already a race against time to provide new resources to mitigate climate change. But the race can be won if investment is targeted. 

Cop28 presents perhaps the last opportunity for the international community to come up with the required investment capital to support those water-scarce economies with additional supply before the climate crisis is felt.

A targeted fund for loans to those countries in need can be a major outcome of the discussions taking place next month.

A photovoltaic-powered desalination plant that provides enough drinking water for a city of 100,000 people is likely to cost $100 million. Thus, given population growth, at least $50 billion is needed until 2030 to help water-scarce countries to adapt. 

Such investments can provide substantial returns if they go hand in hand with stricter policies to ensure full cost recovery of drinking water. Consumers have to pay for such services but they will be willing to do so if they receive clean drinking water and improved sanitation.

What is often neglected in the discussion over water pricing to recover investment costs is the current unsustainable situation. 

Ask a household in Lebanon or Jordan and you will be surprised that a middle-class family will be paying more than $100 per month just for the water they drink from coolers and dispensers.

Such costs can be significantly reduced by desalination and waste-water treatment not only for drinking but also other household needs. The cost to desalinate one cubic metre is about 50 US cents.

Demand can be lowered if smart appliances are used, such as the latest generation of washing machines or dishwashers. A family of five requires about 300 cubic metres per year in a dry area such as the Arab region.

Think about the potential premium for investors. The drinking water challenge can be solved if the political will is available. 

Agricultural demands

What cannot be easily solved is the conundrum of water for food. Tunisia has had to cut back its main exports of olive oil, cereals and dates this year. It is unlikely that it will become a strong agricultural exporter again.

Finding ways to compensate farmers for reducing their production levels is a challenging task for governments in water-scarce economies.

However, hydrological reality will leave such countries with few options other than to recycle, reduce and reform.

Through water treatment facilities, some agricultural activity can be continued. Yet, farmers relying on erratic rain-fed agriculture must be gradually helped to work in other sectors such as industry

This has to be accompanied by wider policy reforms to open up for trade and to reduce subsidies in agriculture wherever possible. 

Martin Keulertz is a lecturer in environmental management at the University of the West of England, Bristol

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