Attempts To ‘Green the Desert’ Have Dried Tunisia’s Oases

Monoculture farming of the country’s famed Deglet Nour dates has drained historic aquifers but, as the sand encroaches, residents are trying to fight back

Attempts To ‘Green the Desert’ Have Dried Tunisia’s Oases
The production of Tunisia’s famed Deglet Nour dates is water-intensive and susceptible to drought and pests. (Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images)

On the holiday of Eid al-Adha, in late June, the sun beat down on the houses of Kebili, a town on the edge of the desert in southern Tunisia, surrounded by a large palm grove where some took refuge in the shade. By 7 a.m. the town was already awake and bustling, and the temperature was close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Women tinkered in the kitchen, waiting to prepare the traditional holiday lunch with meat from the sheep that would be sacrificed as symbols of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son.

While waiting for her neighbors to stop by, Soukeina, 28, tidied up the terrace of the family home, which overlooks the old city of Kebili. As the eldest sister of the house, she was responsible for preparing the meat. “Thank God we have water today,” she said, turning on the tap to wash the innards. “Last week, we suffered constant water cuts. We were afraid we would spend Eid without water.”

Soukeina’s family paid 1,200 Tunisian dinars ($390) for the beast, more than twice the average monthly salary in Tunisia. This tradition has become a luxury for most Tunisian households, as the price of lamb increased by about 35% over the summer, according to the Tunisian National Statistical Institute.

Tunisia is in the midst of a food shortage crisis, with basic staples like milk, flour, sugar, butter and coffee regularly unavailable, and the prices of everything from grains to fruit to meat rising precipitously. While many point to the country’s economic crisis as the root cause of the problem, another underlying issue looms: The past three years of drought have dried up Tunisian reservoirs, contributing to a crisis for the country’s farming industry. Water scarcity has pushed more and more farmers to flee their lands or sell their herds because they can no longer afford to keep them — about 15,000 farmers leave the sector annually, according to the country’s main agricultural union. The trend does not seem likely to reverse, since the Mediterranean, which several modeling predictions have dubbed a “climate change hot spot,” has been increasingly affected by the climate crisis and rising temperatures.

After an extremely dry winter, in March Tunisia’s public water management company, known as SONEDE, began rationing water overnight in the capital, cutting the flow to household taps from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. because of the low level of the country’s reservoirs. It caused a major uproar. Yet far away from the hubbub in the capital, rationing has been the norm for years in the Kebili region.

“Southern Tunisia relies on a whole other system of water management, which does not depend on the northern dams, but on increasingly overexploited groundwater tables, a major source of conflict in the area,” said Alaa Marzougui of the Tunisian Water Observatory.

In June, this civil society organization, which monitors access to water, collected 245 citizen alerts reporting water-related problems throughout the country. But measuring and reporting drought risk in southern Tunisia is more complicated than merely seeing the rise and fall of reservoir levels or a drying streambed, since the area relies instead on underground aquifers, whose fullness is difficult to measure. Tunisia’s pre-desert regions of arid scrubland, common in the south of the country, are also the most vulnerable to water scarcity.

“According to official data, the average annual precipitation in southern Tunisia is 100 millimeters [4 inches],” said Ahmed Abdeddayem, president of the environmental association Nakhla in Douz, a town of 30,000 residents a few miles from Kebili. “But the figures aren’t updated. It is much less. We’re observing an average rainfall of around 50 millimeters [2 inches] a year, with heavier rain limited in time and place.”

Abdeddayem, who hails from the region, has dedicated his life’s work to safeguarding the oases. Their fragile ecosystems are now highly endangered by the climate crisis and water mismanagement, since they rely on an unregulated well system that exploits groundwater that is increasingly hot, salty and scarce.

“The surface water table” — up to about 70 feet — “is already dry,” he said.

This kind of water scarcity is having a major effect on the fragile ecosystem of the Saharan oases in Tunisia and the communities that rely on them. For generations, the local population has built a way of life in balance with the harsh environment, despite colonization and export-driven state policies designed to supply foreign markets with the oases’ goods. Now that too is at risk of disappearing as the oases dry up and the desert expands.

Every morning, the people of Essabriya sweep the sand away from their front doors. A few hundred people inhabit this remote village, a few miles from Kebili, that borders a military zone. The area could become a no man’s land in a few decades.

Here the desert continues to expand northward, and the once tidy inner courtyards of the mud houses are constantly filled with sand. Handmade barriers of woven palm fronds, a traditional method used by southern communities to limit the spread of the sand, are no longer able to contain it. The dunes lean against windward walls and can reach up to 5 or 6 feet high, burying the windows.

“Life is increasingly hostile here, and people are leaving,” said a young resident. “In a few years, our village will disappear, buried by sand.”

Unless a solution is found.

In recent decades, governments and multinational companies have promoted tree-planting as a way to fight against climate change and the desert’s expansion. This has its roots in colonial ideas about land management and Europe’s self-declared mission to civilize, settle — and by extension, “reforest” — desert communities. Despite its retrograde history, it is an idea that has persisted. In recent years, initiatives like the Great Green Wall, spearheaded by the African Union, have aimed to create great swaths of trees and other plants on the edge of the Sahara as a means to stop desertification and sequester more of the world’s carbon dioxide. But the plan, apart from being woefully slowly implemented — thus far, only 4% of the intended area has been covered, according to projections — has detractors among scientists and nature conservationists, who have found evidence that “greening the desert” is not only difficult to achieve but can be ecologically damaging to systems already on the brink.

“Instead of creating new ones, we could start by preserving existing ecosystems,” Abdeddayem said. “But as they are not economically exploitable, we prefer to leave them behind, promoting profit-oriented farming projects instead.”

In Tunisia, the nature-based “solution” of greening the desert took hold decades ago. Just a few miles from Kebili, a massive palm grove stretches nearly 15 miles, overlooking the dusty dunes. But unlike Kebili, Rjim Maatoug isn’t a historic oasis that has watered desert dwellers for generations. It is the site of a former military prison, where political prisoners were held under Presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine el Abedine Ben Ali.

“Before this, there was nothing but desert,” the military officer supervising the palm grove told us. When an underground aquifer was found in 1972, that all changed. “We’ve created these new oases to prevent the desert from expanding and allow the nomadic communities to settle down.”

The prison closed in 2012 after the fall of Ben Ali, and the military zone’s new stated aim, according to the Ministry of Defense, which oversees the area, is to “stop the expansion of the dunes” by planting date palms. The project, which receives 45% of its financing via European, and particularly Italian, cooperation, has also served to refurbish the base’s image, though the green sheen is a thin veneer. From 2002 to 2020, at least $21 million of foreign aid has been allocated to “make the desert bloom” in an area of about 6,000 acres, according to the latest report from the Italian Agency for Cooperation and Development. But the climate goals seem to hide security aims. The roads to the south and across the border to Algeria lead to the main oil and gas fields in Tunisia and eastern Algeria. This town planning project in the heart of the desert has allowed the Tunisian army to settle cross-border nomadic communities in a strategic area, especially for the energy industry, on the border of the two countries.

The Rjim Maatoug Development Office, which is funded by the Ministry of Defense, claims the faux oasis “will help fight against the perpetual threat of desertification caused by the Great Eastern Erg, which is ravaging everything it encounters.”

Despite the optimistic line depicting Rjim Maatoug as a sustainable project where water flows abundantly, the most optimistic studies — conducted by the Rjim Maatoug Development Office itself — claim that the underground water reservoir will last until 2030-35 at the latest.

“There is a big difference between desertification and the encroachment of sand,” Abdeddayem said. “Desertification is soil degradation, the loss of water resources, the degradation of plant coverage and even a reduction in the number of inhabitants per square kilometer. Stopping the sand is not enough to protect this fragile environment.”

The Nakhla association and other activists say that Rjim Maatoug is, in fact, anathema to its stated goals because of its water-intensive model.

Forty years after the construction of the series of villages where the inhabitants, formerly nomadic herding families, are now in charge of a parcel of the palm grove, Rjim Maatoug has turned into a vast monoculture farm for Deglet Nour dates, an iconic Tunisian variety that is consumed locally but also exported in large quantities to consumers in the Gulf.

Traditionally, oases are based on a three-tier agriculture system: a market garden of vegetables planted close to the ground, followed by a layer of lower-growing fruit trees, such as oranges and pomegranates, with date palms towering over the rest. The result is Edenic, with a cooler microclimate, rich soil, busy pollinators and a variety of crops to feed the oasis’s residents year round. But these ecosystems hardly exist anymore. Large date monocultures, such as those of Rjim Maatoug, have replaced the old system. Today, monoculture farms represent 63% of the total oasis land surface in Tunisia.

But Deglet Nour dates are a thirsty and finicky crop, and the former nomads at Rjim Maatoug, whose income now relies solely on intensive date production, are depleting water reserves under the supervision and mismanagement of the government. As a result, “We are not just exporting Tunisian dates. We are exporting water,” Abdeddayem said.

In this area of southern Tunisia, water is used collectively according to a water cycle: Each farmer has a set number of hours on a particular day to use the water, enabling them to irrigate their palms periodically. But as the number of days between water turns are getting longer and longer, more and more illegal wells have been dug.

“Rjim Maatoug has access to water every fortnight, whereas water arrives every one to three months in all the other so-called public domain oases,” Abdeddayem pointed out.

The Water 2050 Plan, a consultative report produced by the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies, which looks at the water policies to be put in place by 2050, mentions that the southern aquifers are running out of steam in an “already clearly perceptible” way.

While the small- and medium-depth aquifers in the north and center of Tunisia are classified as renewable, according to the report, “the south of the country contains deep aquifer systems (>800 m) [2,600 feet] which extend beyond the country’s borders and whose resources are not renewable.”

Experts predict climate change will cause temperatures to rise between 2.7 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit in the country’s south, increasing evaporation, reducing soil moisture and resulting in a pronounced drought effect. Northern water reserves would need to increase in the future, rather than decrease, to supply an ever-drier south.

“The question of a possible transfer of water from the north to the south has been raised, but how can we assume that there will be enough water when the reservoirs are no longer more than 30% full?” said Alaa Marzouqui of the Tunisian Water Observatory, one of the civil society associations that contributed to the discussions about the Water 2050 plan.

Nakhla estimates that the southern region of Tunisia already exploits 209% of its annual water resources in a year, pushing the region toward “a state of emergency.”

Nakhla has been collecting local data since 2012, when the organization was founded as a way for activists to work on the issues of water management and the effects of climate change. Together with a network of environmental associations from the Tunisian south, they are working to protect their threatened ecosystem.

Oases are among the most fragile ecosystems on the planet. When water is missing, problems pile up. The recent drought allowed a devastating disease called “boufaroua” to attack the palm trees. “These are mites that grow around the fruit and suffocate them,” explained Kadri, a local farmer. The dates turn white, and the whole crop is destroyed. “Usually, it only takes one or two rains to wash our trees and naturally rid them of these invaders,” he said. But the rains didn’t come, and the crops were lost.

In addition to diminishing, the groundwater has become briny because of the intrusion of salty water into the collapsing aquifers. “It’s a disaster,” Abdeddayem said. “Some of our wells can hold up to 30 grams of salt per liter,” a salinity level almost as high as the Mediterranean Sea, which holds about 39 grams per liter.

In the centuries before monoculture, when the oases were three-tiered, oasis communities used an ingenious irrigation system handed down since the 13th century, which allowed free and equitable access to the resource between farmers. But with the water missing and the development of date monocultures, big farmers have started to drill water in massive quantities privately.

“They aren’t even farmers. They are businessmen,” said Hamdi, a farmer from the oasis of Tozeur. “In Kebili I’ve seen one irrigating his trees almost all day long, every two weeks. All the water is diverted toward these crops, while we, small farmers, are allowed to irrigate once every two to three months.”

Local stakeholders have criticized the lack of water governance and the laissez-faire attitude toward uncontrolled drilling, which has become widespread. They also decry a double standard that allows rich and intensive-based farmers to exploit water without limits, while small farmers are sidelined with their thirsty crops.

“What we need is a national program to protect and value our fragile ecosystems. The government must urgently invest in adaptation solutions to use less water,” said Salem Ben Slama, a member of the local association La Ruche in Tozeur, which promotes sustainable oases systems.

One of those solutions is a plain, if painful one: “If we want to fight against desertification, the first thing we must do is to stop planting trees,” said Abdeddayem, because intensive plantation projects have effects exactly the opposite of those intended. “The more trees we plant, the more water we’ll need.”

The next step is to restore what he calls the “plant symphony” characteristic of the oasis ecosystems. When managed well, tree planting helps to prevent soil evaporation and to regulate humidity, giving dates their shine and sweetness. This microclimate can also help manage diseases and increase local resilience against climate change.

Originally, southern collective lands were divided among tribes whose main source of livelihood was pastoralism. After reclaiming the land, which was occupied during French colonization, the Tunisian state gradually ceded it to private companies, mainly oil multinationals, looking to invest in the country. Its value was seen as limited: Bourguiba claimed that the desert lands were useless, since they were not nearly profitable enough. “In reality, however, they were extremely lucrative for the local population, whose primary activity was grazing,” said Aymen Amayed, a researcher in agricultural policies.

These same lands, whose “uselessness” was consciously constructed by successive land policies, are now being pursued by the world of green finance, with the promise of stimulating so-called marginalized regions in the name of sustainable development.

In Tunisia, the Jemna oasis is an iconic example of participatory self-management of land. After decades of struggles, the people of this southern oasis reclaimed the ownership of their land in 2011, two days before the fall of the Ben Ali regime.

An old colonial villa sits at the heart of the oasis, harking back to the days of the French protectorate. “French settlers took possession of the land in 1912,” explained Tahar Etahri, former president of the Association for the Protection of the Jemna Oasis, which was founded in 2012. “After a series of ownership changes from French settlers to Tunisian businessmen, we occupied the palm grove during the revolution and have managed it collectively ever since.”

Palm groves owned and managed by individual families are susceptible to fragmentation of ownership as successive generations divide the land into smaller and smaller plots. As a result, the land becomes difficult to manage, unprofitable, and more likely to be abandoned or taken over by the private sector.

“Jemna’s merit lies in keeping the plot as a whole,” he said. “We’ve convinced the landowners that we will keep the oasis as it is. It’s a win-win situation, benefiting the whole community, including them.”

The income from the dates produced in the 450-acre palm grove is collectively used by the association to provide the local community with shared services, such as school equipment, office supplies and a gymnasium.

“We are also experimenting with new irrigation techniques, but a joint effort is needed,” Etahri said. “Water has no barriers.”

Just a few miles east of Jemna, in the El Atilette oasis, a 7,000-foot well built by Hungarians in the 1980s to irrigate the palm grove above is now pumping water with excessive salt concentration.

“They haven’t been able to sell their dates for three years because their water is too salty,” Etahri explained. “Date palms are dead.”

But even those trying to return to a shared and equitable model are threatened by poor water management and overuse that extends beyond local or even national boundaries. The continental aquifer, the deepest in southern Tunisia, is shared among Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, and is dangerously low. ‘This shared water table is nonrenewable. We are calling for a common policy, not only at the national but also at the regional level,” Abdeddayem said.

“Jemna is an inspiring example,” he added. “But we need to go further and change our whole agricultural model. Otherwise, the oases will die and we with them.”

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