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Tunisians deprived of right to water drink from snake infested waters

Tunisians deprived of right to water drink from snake infested waters

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Life Environment Basic Rights

Tuesday 15 November 202212:20 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

"تشرب الأفاعي معنا"... تونسيون محرومون من حقهم في الماء

"For eight years, my family and I have been living in the northern neighborhood of the 'mutamadiyah' (delegation, or local government) of Jilmah, in the governorate of Sidi Bouzid (in the central west), without the luxury of potable water. I get my drinking water through a tractor that brings it from a deep well that’s about 4 kilometers away from Jilmah, for 30 dinars per tank," Othman al-Jamali tells Rassef22.

Othman, a 48-year-old construction worker, is a father of three. He tries, with a humble daily wage of 30 dinars, to provide for all his family's needs, including drinking water. But he must divide this one tank on all their domestic uses such as cooking, drinking, washing, and cleaning, in addition to irrigation and watering their livestock animals.

The northern neighborhood area is inhabited by nearly two hundred families, and suffers from a complete deprivation of water. The Tunisian National Water Exploitation and Distribution Company (governmental) began work three years ago to supply the area with a drinking water network. It had set up the pipes but did not complete the project due to a dispute with the municipality about completing the construction of a road in the area, Othman adds.

"Humorous irony"

All families here have no choice but to resort to buying water tanks in order to meet their drinking water needs. Their suffering doubles in the summer and its record high temperatures, and with it, the suffering of children, many of whom are forced to refrain from going to school when their families run out of water and must succumb to the reality they live in.

"But the humorous irony here, funnily enough, is that while we are completely deprived of water, a large pipe cuts through our area (the northern neighborhood), transporting drinking water to the province of Sfax (in the central east)," he concludes.

Also in the northern neighborhood area is 47-year-old Abdel Moez Hablani, another construction worker and father of five, who lives off the railway in Jilmah, where the unfinished water network ends. "It's such an irony," he tells Raseef22.

"The humorous irony here is that while we are completely deprived of water, a large pipe cuts through our area (the northern neighborhood), transporting drinking water to the province of Sfax (the central east)"

For his part, Abdel Moez buys a water tank load for 30 dinars, which is only enough to serve them for 7 to ten days, "Since I am a simple low-wage worker, I sometimes cannot buy water, so my children are forced stop going to school because otherwise, they'll go in dirty clothes and without washing up," he adds.

Difficult Living Conditions

The price of one water tank (30 dinars) is very high compared to the people's difficult living conditions and their lack of a stable source of livelihood and income. His family has to divide the tank's water between irrigation, domestic use, and the animals' needs, and so, "It is barely enough for us."

"We put the tank water in a 'majil' (water basin), which affects its quality, and we are exposed, especially in the summer and record high temperatures, to attacks by snakes that smell the water and look for cool places to rest. We have even heard of some locals who had to keep using their snake infested water because they couldn't afford to buy a new water load. Unfortunately this is our reality," Hablani stresses.

"We live in a society that stays silent on people's legitimate rights to water, electricity, and housing, even though these rights are not a privilege or luxury. They're basic rights for everyone. For me, the most important thing is that they provide us with food, water, and peace. My daily wage is only 30 dinars. So should I work hard to provide for my little ones or should I stop working to protest this? They've indeed starved us already. May God grant us better days," he concludes.

Over 300,000 Tunisian citizens and 1,415 schools — nearly a 3rd of the total number of educational institutions in Tunisia — suffer from lack of access to potable water, namely the water network of the National Water Exploitation and Distribution Company

Several independent Tunisian non-governmental organizations are working to defend the right to safe drinking water in various regions across the country, including the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), which was established in 2011 and defends economic and social rights at the national and international levels.

According to the forum's latest figures, the per capita share of water in Tunisia today is set at less than 400 cubic meters per year, which is "a percentage that is likely to decrease in the coming years to 350 cubic meters per year, 50 percent less than the amount recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), which ranges from 750 to 900 cubic meters per year."

The same source recorded that more than 300,000 Tunisian citizens suffer from the lack of access to potable water, along with 1,415 schools — nearly a third of the total number of educational institutions in the country — because they aren't connected to the water network of the National Water Exploitation and Distribution Company

Connectivity rates to the water network vary among regions of the country, ranging from 28% to 44% in the central western governorates, while reaching 100% in the capital and coastal governorates.

A map of thirst

The coordinator of the Environmental Justice Department at FTDES, Rihab Mabrouki, explains that the department is carrying out advocacy campaigns in order to defend the right of all Tunisians to safe drinking water of the required quality, "which we consider a duty of the Tunisian state, as it is the one solely responsible for providing this right." Through field visits, the department also monitors the protest movements of the people to demand their right to water.

"We keep the water in an open basin, and are exposed, especially in the summer, to attacks by snakes searching for water and cool places. We heard some even had to keep using their snake infested water because they couldn't afford more. This is our reality"

Mabrouki tells Raseef22 that the forms of protest movements vary according to the specificity of each region. In some regions, they protest against the frequent water cuts, such as those in the mining basin within the governorate of Gafsa (southwest), due to the random and irregular connections to the water network there and the theft of water by some citizens and the Gafsa Phosphate Company (CPG), "which is greatly draining the wealth of the water area", and because of the old and worn out water networks, which date back to the eighties of the last century.

There are also rural regions whose residents protest because of their complete deprivation of the right to water, such as the countryside of Kairouan (central west) and Nabeul (northeast), "in which some of the residents we visited drink from water associations that, in turn, suffer from the problem of permanent indebtedness to the Tunisian Company of Electricity and Gas (governmental), which cuts off electricity from its water wells and thus deprives the population of water," she adds.

Complete deprivation of water

Mabrouki points out several rural areas in the Jendouba Governorate (northwest) whose inhabitants suffer from a complete deprivation of water, forcing many of them to drink from a single, remote public tap. These residents use it in all their daily needs, from cooking, drinking, and washing, to providing water to animals, while others have resorted to drinking from a lake that is located far from them, which caused them to develop serious skin and cancerous diseases.

In his diagnosis of the water situation in Tunisia, Rami Ben Ali, a researcher at the Tunisian Water Observatory, says that Tunisia's climate is dry and rainfall in the south is usually less than 100 millimeters, while it reaches 1,500 millimeters in the north, especially in the northwest, "which means that Tunisia's total surface water resources are estimated at about 2.7 million cubic meters, while groundwater is about 2.1 million cubic meters."

The Tunisian Water Observatory (Observatoire Tunisien de l'Eau) is an independent NGO established in 2016 by the "Nomad 08 Association", which monitors water policies within the country and some of the projects carried out by the state, along with issuing a monthly and annual map of thirst in the country.

Ben Ali explains to Raseef22 that the Tunisian country has been suffering from water scarcity and water poverty since the distant past, "but the peoples that have historically passed through Tunisia have succeeded in adapting to its water situation, and perhaps the Hanaya aqueduct facility (a network of canals built by the Romans for transporting drinking and irrigation water in the ancient province of Zaghouan, northeast of Tunisia) stands witness to this, and then the dams come at the second level."

The state’s responsibility

The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights believes that the state, represented by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Tunisian National Water Exploitation and Distribution Company, is primarily responsible for providing the right to water, and calls on it "once again" to take serious measures and adopt strategies that take into account the right of everyone to a safe and healthy environment, affirms Rihab Mabrouki.

According to researcher Rami Ben Ali, the problem lies "in the policies adopted in the water sector, especially the state lacking a national strategy for the management of water resources that takes into account the water scarcity situation in Tunisia, which led to the formation of a structural crisis for the water sector, because almost all of the country's provinces have problems with frequent water cuts."

As for areas that suffer from a complete lack of drinking water, especially rural ones, this falls within the framework of the state's policy in dealing with citizens regarding the issue of water delivery and distribution, according to Ben Ali.

To put an end to the crisis of deprivation of the right to water in the country, the forum proposes that the state seek to ensure and achieve equality among all citizens in terms of access to safe drinking water.

He goes on to say, "In urban central areas, there are generally no major problems due to the proximity of residential communities and the ease of delivery of services to them by the Tunisian National Water Exploitation and Distribution Company (governmental), despite the fact that its network suffers from several problems such as lack of digitization and being outdated."

As for the rural areas, they are, in the eyes of the state company, "too expensive to provide water to because the residential communities are dispersed, so it has handed the job of water distribution there to associations. We have in Tunisia about 2,500 water associations divided between associations specialized in drinking water, irrigation water, and others that combine the two," he explains.

Water associations are a system that handles the distribution of water and has existed since the time of the French colonization of Tunisia, continuing work even after independence. In 1989, a law related to them was issued, but it was greatly ambiguous as it does not clarify the party it is subject to, or the party that monitors the law being put into force, according to the same source.

Rami Ben Ali points out that what is known about these associations is only the way they're established. A group of people in a certain rural area voluntarily creates an association, and the state grants them the freedom to handle the water resources in their area.

He says that in the past, the ruling party used it as an electoral water reservoir — "water in exchange for the people's votes" — whereas nowadays, there is a consensus that these associations suffer from a great indebtedness to the Tunisian Company of Gas and Electricity, due to the failure of a large number of citizens to pay for the water provided by these associations.

When is equality achieved?

To put an end to the crisis of deprivation of the right to water in the country, FTDES proposes that the state seeks to ensure and achieve equality among all citizens in terms of access to safe drinking water, "an equality on which human rights principles are based," according to its representative Rihab Mabrouki.

It also proposes applying the principle of custody to the polluter, in order to urge industrial companies that deplete large quantities of water to economize and save on consumption, as well as apply deterrent penalties at the regional level, especially in cases of irregular water networking.

The forum also calls that no more licenses are granted to water bottling companies, which rose from 6 units in 1989 to 29 units in 2020, "since a large part of bottled water is exported, which is a violation of the constitutional chapter that stipulates that natural resources belong to the Tunisian people."

FTDES calls for the abolition of the system of water associations and their replacement with the Tunisian Rural Water Exploitation and Distribution Company, given the existence of financial problems regarding these associations, such as the non-payment of their debts to the Tunisian Company of Gas and Electricity.

One of the appropriate solutions proposed by the Tunisian Water Observatory is the establishment of a national agency for the management of irrigation and drinking water in rural areas, instead of water associations, "because the water sector in Tunisia is divided into several institutions, and must be unified," according to researcher Rami Ben Ali.

A national map

Ben Ali calls for the need to arrange the use in the water sector at a sectoral level, and determine its priority in the fields of drinking, industry, agriculture, and tourism, as "each sector must determine the uses of water, especially in the field of agriculture, and therefore we demand a national map of agricultural production; What crops do we grow? Where? What are the crops that do not use up our water in great amounts?" 

The speaker cites the existence of areas in Nabeul Governorate and the tribal homeland where investors mainly tend to export-oriented agriculture and crops, such as oranges, which consume large water resources that are not sufficient enough for such farms, especially since the water resources in these places are almost depleted by 120 percent.

He stresses the need to create an alternative to the status of existing dams, because they have a limited life span, "and the majority of dams in Tunisia have expired".

It is noteworthy that the President of Tunisia, Kais Saied, during a meeting on July 18, 2022, called on the Minister of Agriculture, Water Resources and Fisheries, Mahmoud Elias Hamza, to "choose the best timing to carry out works that require cutting off water for a limited time. He also reviewed the restoration of the system of water associations so that potable water is available to all citizens in all regions across the country."

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