Climate change in North Africa threatens agriculture and political stability

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Tunisian olive grower Ali Fileli looked at his parched fields and crushed a piece of dry, dusty earth in his hand.

“I can’t do anything with my land because of the lack of water,” he said.

Fileli is just one of many farmers who have been left behind by increasingly long and intense droughts across North Africa.

“When I started farming with my father, it was still raining, or we were digging a well and there was water,” said the 54-year-old man, who works about 22 hectares (54 acres) of land. near the north of the country. city ​​of Kairouan.

“But for the past 10 years, there has always been a lack of water. Each year the water table drops three to four meters (10-13 feet).”

Fileli showed AFP his huge olive orchard. As the olive harvest approached, some bore shriveled berries, but the rest were dead.

He said that in the past decade about half of his 1,000 olive trees have died from drought.

The water crisis in the country is clearly visible at the Sidi Salem reservoir, which supplies water to nearly three million Tunisians, including the capital Tunis.

Years of drought have left its water level at a critical level, a worrying sign for the future of the region.

The lake’s surface is 15 meters (50 feet) below the high water mark left by the 2018 floods.

Engineer Cherif Guesmi says he has seen “terrifying climate change” during a decade of work at the dam.

“The situation today is really critical,” he said.

“There has been virtually no rain since a 2018 flood, and we still use that water today.”

As Tunisia stifled in record temperatures exceeding 48 degrees centigrade (118 degrees Fahrenheit) in August, the reservoir lost 200,000 cubic meters per day from evaporation alone, he said.

Despite heavy rains at the end of October, few falls were recorded in the dam’s watershed and the reservoir remains at just 17% of its capacity, according to official figures this week.

Tunisia’s neighbors face similar challenges.

The North African nations of Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia are among the 30 most water-stressed countries in the world, according to the World Resources Institute.

Experts warn that this could lead to social change that could upset the fragile socio-political balances of the region.

– ‘No future here’ –

Fileli also had to delay plans to sow winter wheat or barley in his fields.

He lists the ripple effects: Smaller harvests mean farmers run into more debt and hire fewer seasonal workers, adding to an 18% unemployment rate that has pushed many people out of the country. .

“My son said to me: ‘Dad, should I go and look for work in Tunis or elsewhere? If things stay like this, I have no future here.”

The problems facing Tunisia are felt throughout the region.

“The water table across North Africa is dropping due to a combination of excessive pumping and lack of rainfall,” said Aaron Wolf, professor of geography at Oregon State University.

He cited the immense Libyan man-made river, a huge system built under late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, to pump “fossil water” from the finished southern desert aquifers to the country’s coastal cities.

In Algeria, the scene of huge forest fires in August, precious drinking water is regularly used for irrigation and industry.

And in Morocco, the drought has “strongly affected agricultural production”, according to the Ministry of the Economy.

Rabat’s Agriculture Minister Mohammed Sadiki told parliament that rainfall was down 84 percent from last year.

– Need for adaptation –

Wolf said the implications of the drought extend far beyond the countryside, causing migration within and across national borders.

“It is in the interest of all parties to solve rural water problems,” he said.

“Drought entails all the things that lead to political instability: rural people migrate to the city, where there is no support for them, exacerbating political tensions.

Hamadi Habaieb, head of water planning at the Tunisian environment ministry, said a combination of less rainfall and a growing population would mean that by 2050 the country would have “a lot less” water. water available per person.

“Tunisia must adapt,” he said.

But he insisted on the fact that “agriculture has a future in Tunisia, even if it will be necessary to orient itself towards very specific cultures … which can face the lack of water and climate change”.

For Fileli, any solution may come too late to save his business – and the farming career of his 20-year-old son.

“I am thinking of giving up, going to the capital, elsewhere,” Fileli said. “As long as there is no water, no rain, why stay here? At least my children could find another future.”

by / jsa / pjm / oho / fz


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