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Worst drought on record forces Tunisia to cut off drinking water for seven hours every night

Sidi El Barrak dam with depleted levels of water, in Nafza, west of the capital Tunis, Tunisia, 7 January 2023.
Sidi El Barrak dam with depleted levels of water, in Nafza, west of the capital Tunis, Tunisia, 7 January 2023. Copyright REUTERS/Jihed Abidellaoui
Copyright REUTERS/Jihed Abidellaoui
By Angela Symons with Reuters
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Water is being cut for seven hours every night in response to the worst drought on record.

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Tunisia is cutting off water supplies to citizens for seven hours a night. The extreme measure is a response to the country's worst drought on record.

The water will be cut off daily from 9pm until 4am, with immediate effect, state water distribution company SONEDE said in a statement on Friday.

The country's agriculture ministry earlier introduced a quota system for drinking water and banned its use in agriculture until 30 September.

Tunisia is battling with a drought that is now in its fourth year.

What’s causing Tunisia’s drought?

Years of drought have dried up Tunisian reservoirs, diminished harvests and pushed the government to raise tap water prices for homes and businesses.

Attributing the unprecedented drought to climate change, SONEDE head Mosbah Hlali called on Tunisians to understand the decision to cut off water supplies.

The Mediterranean region has experienced blistering heat in recent summers and a lack of rainfall in winter. In August 2021, Tunisia experienced record-high temperatures of over 50°C.

The country’s dam capacity has now dropped to around 1 billion cubic metres, or 30 per cent of the maximum, according to senior agriculture ministry official Hamadi Habib.

The Sidi Salem Dam in the north of the country, a key provider of drinking water to several regions, has declined to only 16 per cent of its maximum capacity, official figures show.

Tunisia’s grain harvest will be “disastrous”, with the drought-hit crop declining to 200,000-250,000 tonnes this year from 750,000 tonnes in 2022, senior farmers union official Mohamed Rjaibia told news agency Reuters on Thursday.

How severe are Tunisia’s water restrictions?

As well as cutting off overnight water supplies, Tunisia’s agriculture ministry has banned the use of drinking water to wash cars, water green areas and clean streets and public places.

Violators face a fine and imprisonment for a period of between six days to six months.

Residents say Tunisian authorities have been cutting off drinking water at night in some areas of the capital and other cities for the last two weeks in a bid to cut consumption.

The move has sparked widespread anger.

The new decision threatens to fuel social tension in a country whose people suffer from poor public services, high inflation and a weak economy.

Farmers have also been urged to stop irrigating vegetable fields with water from dams and in some cases face limits.

Tunisia already has food supply problems due to high global prices and the government’s own financial difficulties, which have reduced its capacity to buy imported food and subsidise farms at home.

The drought has pushed up fodder prices, contributing to a crisis for Tunisia’s dairy industry as farmers sell off herds they can no longer afford to keep, leaving supermarket shelves empty of milk and butter.

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Will Europeans face water restrictions this summer?

Europe has been in drought since 2018, according to a recent study from the Graz University of Technology in Austria.

Low winter rain and snowfall have left countries at risk of another extreme summer, the European Commission has warned.

Northern Italy, France and Spain are bracing for restrictions, which last year limited some residents of Catalonia to using water for around four hours a day.

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