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Tunisia’s drought is Israel’s concern

Bloodshed triggered by water scarcity throughout the Mideast highlights the need for regional cooperation

Tunisia is suffering a drought — and that is something we in Israel would do well to note.

The differences in our governments and society notwithstanding, we not only share a region and a sea but also an environmental fate.

Al-Monitor reports that recent water shortages in Tunisia, caused in part by a 28% deficit in rainfall relative to 2015, have led to social unrest and citizen protests, including a suicide reminiscent of the one in 2010 that helped launch a revolution in that country and sparked the Arab Spring. While religious leaders are calling for the faithful to pray for rain, water cutoffs by authorities are said to have spawned the unrest.

Tunisians citizens are reportedly contending with water supplies of just 400 cubic liters per year per person, well below the 1000 cubic liters per person per year designated by the United Nations as being the “water poverty” cutoff.

Water Poverty

According to commentators, the issues underlying these shortages are in part socio-political in origin: certain regions of the country including coastal areas and tourist destinations are said to be receiving supplies at the expense of ordinary citizens elsewhere. Accusations of mismanagement, politicization, and lack of planning are also cited as behind the deficits.

However, Tunisia would be facing water scarcity even with sound resource management and water equality.

A northern African country with a long Mediterranean coast, Tunisia is particularly vulnerable to climate change including rising temperatures, higher evapotranspiration rates (“drying”), a projected drop in precipitation and sea level rise. With expanding industrialization and agricultural production, and increasing urbanization, water stocks are likely to be increasingly stressed in that country and throughout the region.

The MENA Region

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has determined that temperatures in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) will increase along with drying trends during this century. This will lead to water scarcity and the decimation of rural lands due to drought and famine. Impacts have already begun to be felt by us due to events in a country on Israel’s doorstep, Syria.

In Syria climate change exacerbated a severe drought that led to an internal refugee crisis in that country from 2008-2011. The consequences of that extreme event was the match that touched off the powder keg of Syria’s internally divided society: Up to 1.5 million disenfranchised Syrians left their homes in the east of the country and congregated on the fringes of the cities in the north and west of the country adding to already strained resources and destabilizing an economy on the verge of collapse due to falling oil prices and graft.

The MENA region is one of areas of the world projected to be most severely affected by the changing climate. Accordingly, careful planning and the adoption of sustainable technologies for water conservation, distillation and reuse are vital to the future of the societies in the Middle East.

Regional Cooperation

No less important is regional cooperation. The differences dividing our societies now will pale when compared to climate change impacts and other shared challenges that the region will face in coming years.

Israel has a particular stake in such regional cooperation. We have adopted a water resource regime based on advanced technologies and planning that appear sufficient to meet our needs for the foreseeable future and that are admired the world over.

The threat of regional unrest including long-predicted “water wars” could be obviated by judiciously offering technology transfer, knowledge-sharing and capacity building as part of a regional cooperation program aimed at furthering peace.

Of course, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango. But given that August 2016 was the eighth consecutive hottest month on record following the unprecedented heat of 2015, the impacts of climate change will continue to worsen over this century. It is likely then that regional leaders will soon come to the realization that cooperation and coexistence is the only way for us to survive.

Dr. Yosef Gotlieb, author of Rise, A Novel of Contemporary Israel and Self-Determination in the Middle East, is a geographer specializing in the socioeconomic impacts of global change.

About the Author
Dr. Yosef Gotlieb directs the Program in Editing and Editorial Analysis at David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem. He is an author, geographer and educator. His books include Self-Determination in the Middle East, Development, Environment and Global Dysfunction and, most recently, Rise, A Novel of Contemporary Israel.
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