Water: Tunisia’s Other Development Challenge

September 4, 2014

  • Water scarcity has long been a challenge in the Middle East and North Africa region, but climate change combined with rapid urbanization has made the problem even more acute.
  • A growing urban population, along with demands from industry and agriculture, has put immense pressure on Tunisia’s water resources.
  • The World Bank has supported Tunisian efforts to meet its water challenges with projects to upgrade the distribution infrastructure, rationalize use and better manage resources.

The Middle East and North Africa region has a long history of coping with water scarcity, but the impact of climate change has made the problem even more acute. Balancing growing demand, as a result of the region’s rapid rate of urbanization, with diminishing supplies of natural water has made the management of water resources a top priority. Even a country like Tunisia, currently absorbed with managing a delicate political transition and creating an economy in which opportunities are more widely shared, cannot afford to take its eye off water.  

Over the last decade, Tunisia has achieved considerable success in expanding access to both water and sanitation services, but challenges remain. According to Mr. Hlali Mesbah, director of the Tunisian National Sanitation Agency (ONAS), the growth of the urban population has put immense pressure on water reserves. In the summer of 2013, the greater Tunis area, with a population of 2.5 million people, witnessed the first cuts in water services due to shortages. Between 2012 and 2013, water use grew by 12 percent, mainly due to the increase of the urban population of Tunis.

Alongside urbanization, there is growing demand for water from industry and agriculture. The increased cumulative demand from all three is a challenge that can only be met through effective management of the country’s water supply.

" Anything less than a continuous supply is not an option, as water is an engine of development. "

Anything less than a continuous supply is not an option, as water is an engine of development. Industry and agriculture need it to grow, and meeting their needs right now is vital for job creation. A steady and sustainable supply of water is an essential ingredient for sustainable growth.  

Tunisia has met the challenge by adopting a set of policies aimed at rationalizing the use of water and modernizing its distribution network. The government and the national water utility, known by the acronym SONEDE, launched the National Water Security Investment Program to ensure undisrupted water services over the next decade, despite fast growing demand and the negative impact of climate change. With its focus on improving infrastructure and sound management policies, Tunisia has not only achieved one of the highest access rates to water and sanitation services among middle-income countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, but continues to invest and adjust to meet growing demand.

The World Bank has long partnered with Tunisia to support its efforts to preserve and better manage its water resources. The Bank has provided both technical assistance and financial support for a range of water related projects. These include:

  • The Urban Water Supply Project: The objective of which was to ensure the continuity of water service for the growing population of Greater Tunis and other targeted cities through augmentation, upgrade and renewal of water supply infrastructure.
  • The Second Water Sector Investment Project: aimed at promoting more efficient management and operation of selected public irrigation schemes; to improve access to and the quality of drinking water for households in rural communities; and to assist the Ministries of Agriculture and Water Resources, Environment and Sustainable Development, and other stakeholders to make better decisions relating to integrated water resources management in Tunisia. 
  • The Northern Tunis Wastewater Project: supported the goals of providing an environmentally safe disposal system for treated wastewater not intended for reuse; while increasing the quantity and quality of treated wastewater available to farmers, to encourage its reuse in agriculture.