Hmaydeya, a small settlement within the Sousse Govenorate, sits around 10 kilometers away from the airport that shuttles tourists from Enfidha to the green resorts of the coast. The nearest road lies around two kilometers away, accessible to the villagers by either foot or donkey. Around 50 people live here, most in half-completed houses, some barely habitable. Many stand incomplete, either unpainted, lacking gas fittings or unfurnished. Children, most under the age of ten, play in the dirt with the small stones that litter Hmaydeya’s dirt tracks.
A three year old girl plays with them, her hair matted and her clothes clotted with dust. One of her eyes shows the clear signs of infection after being rubbed by hands that have not seen running water for days, if not weeks.
The residents of Hmaydeya have not had access to local running water for four months. What water they have must be carried by donkey from the nearest village of Sidi Saiden, whose own dam now sits bone dry in the day’s 40 degree heat.
Though not as badly affected as Hmaydeya, within Sousse water rationing and extended periods where no water is available at all have become the norm. Environmental engineer, Morched Garbouj, President of the association SOS BIAA, explained the “drought we are going through started in February in the South and it continued North from there, until it reached Sousse.” Lack of rainfall, already down 28 percent on last year’s total has had a devastating effect on the region’s water infrastructure. However, a disregard for maintaining its dams and barrages has had even more. “If not taken care of, the barrages will absorb the water” Garbouj said, diminishing the already shrinking amount available for consumption and agriculture.
According to a report by the World Resources Institute, Tunisia was ranked the 33rd most water-stressed country in the world. Based upon current figures, the entire country risks running dry by 2040.
In Hmaydeya, the women talk about how it has affected their hygiene, especially when menstruating.“Imagine wearing the same bloody clothes, because you have no choice but to use the water given to you for survival.” One told Tunisia Live, “Hygiene has become a luxury.”
Of the little water makes it to the Governorate, most finds its way overseas by way of water intensive agricultural exports. Faten Jarraya Horriche, president of the environmental association, Eau Et Development said that, further to the excessive irrigation of crops, the government had missed the chance to invest its limited water resources elsewhere. Now the residents of Sousse and the country’s south are bearing the cost, as the water shortages that dominate their lives creep their way relentlessly north.
For most of the residents of nearby Sousse, the problems that first impacted upon the south towards the end of the winter didn’t become apparent till March. Rim Jeaiem, a housewife from Khzama near Sousse was “going crazier by the day” as the unavailability of water extended from two hours a day, to entire 48 hour periods, “We would have no water from 6 or 7 pm in the winter until 9 in the morning the following day,” she said. “My kids had to go to school without washing their faces or brushing their teeth. They couldn’t even shower.” Jeaiem told about how on some occasions she would leave the dry faucet open, so she would be woken by the first sounds of running water, before climbing from her bed and filling every container she could find.
However, though there were some days when water was available, it remained undrinkable, “it smelt like sewage” Jeaiem said, “and when it was left for a long time, the color would change.The family had little choice but to invest in mineral water to shower, or cook.
However, according to Garbouj and others, though water for those that live in Sousse and the country’s heartlands may be rationed, in remains in plentiful supply in the hotels and resorts that line the country’s coast. Similarly, in Gafsa where the residents’ access to water is at its most limited, factories are extended unlimited access to water supplies.
According to the Minister of Agriculture, if no rain comes between now and October, all of Tunisia may lose access to drinkable water by October. Moreover, even in the case of healthy rainfall, the dams and barrages currently in place need to be maintained if that water is going to be retained.
Despite informing governmental officials from the city council, the police and SONEDE, Sousse residents have had no official comments or proposed solutions on the issue. They were simply all told to “be patient and bear with it”.
According to the Tunisian Constitution, drinkable water, free from risks to health, is a right of every citizen. Campaigners say the current crisis, already a defining factor in the lives of thousands of people from Sousse to the Sahara, now threatens the rest of the country.
Nourjahen is an intern in the Tunisia Live newsroom. A graduate of the US Department of State's, Yes program, Nourjahen is fluent in English, German, Arabic and Fren