When we arrive in El Faouar towards the end of winter, residents are still feeling blessed after three days of rain for which they had lost all hope. « It was a miracle after five years without a single drop from the sky », says Ms. Ben Rejeb. But her joy is as fleeting as the region’s respite from its severe drought: « It would take months, maybe years of rain to make up for the lack of water », says Ben Rejeb’s son, seated beside his mother. Sitting in their courtyard, the family is overcome by nostalgia. « The date palm is all we have in El Faouar! It’s our companion », Ben Rejeb says, concerned and helpless as she observes the conditions that threaten her land. « Thank God we have had the possibility of drilling a well. My son Mohamed is responsible for this. Still, we have neither the quantity nor the quality [of water] that we did before » she adds.
Over the past ten years, residents have had to adapt to an increasingly arid climate: rising temperatures over longer and longer stretches of time, a dry, hot wind and rainfall levels that do not exceed 100 millimeters annually. Drought has become the daily reality in this region where residents have developed survival strategies—for better or worse.
Agricultural investments, to the detriment of the environment
Several kilometers from downtown in the neighborhood of El Khatwa, we meet several of El Faouar’s residents, each of whom own land. Dr. Mohamed Massoud Ben Rejeb is visibly proud of his agricultural endeavor: an evenly-planted stretch of young palms, which can be seen growing nearby, and of older, salvaged palm trees. This is Dr. Ben Rejeb’s kingdom. With another member of the family, he invested 50,000 dinars to drill a well and install solar panels. « What else could I have done? Leave the palms that my ancestors planted to die? Sell my land to investors? Leave El Faouar? » Everywhere we go, we are confronted with the same scenario: drill site, solar panels, new plantations. The problem? These extensions constitute a real threat to the sustainability of ecosystems due in particular to the uncontrolled pressure exerted upon water resources.
The statistics are staggering: the surface area of these extensions in the Kebili governorate increased by 108% between 1996 and 2010, and 272% between 1996 and 2020. The number of illegally drilled wells rose from 3,733 to 7,878 between 2010 and 2017. « Since the installation of solar panels, the situation has only gotten worse », says Naïma Fekih, a social demographer who specializes in migration issues. « The fact that there are no electricity bills to pay at the end of the month has resulted in over-exploitation! On some parcels of land, water is pumped 24 hours a day. It’s a catastrophe », she continues. According to Dr. Ben Rejeb, 95% of land parcels in El Faouar operate thanks to private investments, and only 5% depend solely on the « water-by-turn » system of irrigation which was set up by the government in the 1990s.
This policy, based on the decentralization of water management through the creation of water users’ associations, participative water management and the strengthening of water conservation techniques, has shown its limits. Many of the region’s residents have denounced the prolonged intervals between water turns which generally surpass 30 days and sometimes last up to 60 days in periods of drought. This water deficit is irrefutably related to the continued development of new extensions and the increased number of drilled wells. « If I had to wait for my turn for water, my palms would have stopped producing long ago », remarks Ali Ben Said, a history professor. A vicious cycle which has inevitably condemned residents lacking the means to invest in their land.
Not far from Dr. Ben Rejeb’s verdant parcel is the stretch of land owned by Mohamed Ben Amor, who works in a hotel for part of the year. The contrast is striking. « Drought and disease threaten my palms, and to combat these two phenomenons, I must spend significant sums of money » he tells us. « Before, it cost nothing to maintain a palm tree, we used our own manure, waited our turn to irrigate and relied on family to carry out the work. Today, you need 300 dinars a year per palm tree! Without taking into account the initial investment… Most El Faouar residents have gone into debt in order to protect their palm trees ». For some who renounced this charge, there was no other choice but to sell their land.
El Faouar is a draw for unscrupulous investors who make their profits from dates produced for export through the drilling of wells up to 200 meters deep. These new agricultural operations, which can cover some 100 hectares, are strongly oriented towards productivism, with palm trees evenly aligned, spaced and equipped with new irrigation technology. But these sites are indeed the primary cause for the alarming degradation of water resources. The ironic twist: residents who have sold their land often find themselves working as laborers on a parcel that was once their own.
Declining employment opportunities
« This environmental and social instability is not without consequences », says Naïma Fekih. « El Faouar, which does not have a tradition of emigration, has begun to see its youth leave for elsewhere in the country or overseas ». Agriculture, which represents 36% of employment, can no longer make up the primary source of revenue, and employment opportunities in the region are extremely limited. Unemployment rose from 7% in 2004 to 28% in 2014. According to the FTDES, the agricultural sector ensures permanent income for nearly 500,000 farmers and contributes to the social stability of 35% of the rural population. The installation of gas and oil companies in the region has not created the anticipated number of jobs. Boycotts, sit-ins and blockages have multiplied over the past decade without significant results. Regarding associated environmental risks, residents are pragmatic: « The issue of unemployment comes before the issue of environment. But today we see that not only have these companies not contributed to improving our conditions, but what’s worse, they are destroying our ecosystem in total impunity », says one farmer whose son worked for several months for the company Perenco.
In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) observed that the greatest impact of global warming can be measured at the level of migration, with millions of persons displaced due to the effects of climate change. In El Faouar, the lack of water, encroaching sand, plummeting revenues from date palm production and incapacity to invest in land in order to make it more arable has put a large part of the local population in an impossible situation. With little or no hope left for the future, many locals are leaving El Faouar in search of new horizons. « While migratory movements are a naturally multifactorial phenomenon, the environmental factor is increasingly present », observes Fekih.
According to a report by the World Bank, « In North Africa, the model results show changes in water availability as a main driver of internal climate migration ». This is already the case in El Faouar. « In many regions, youth abandon agriculture because they pursue their studies or because agriculture is devalued. Here, it’s different, youth leave because the climate imbalance has made agriculture unprofitable », explains Fekih. Some have already left, while others are preparing to go. Mohamed and his brother Sofiane bring us to a part of town where homes are half-buried beneath the sand. No need for stairs to reach the roof, the dunes will give you a lift. « Look how the sand is advancing. Tell me, how can one imagine a future here? » Mohamed asks. « And what is the government doing about it? Nothing. It’s as if we don’t exist ».
The Regional Commission for Agricultural Development maintains that a number of initiatives have been undertaken, such as the restoration of tabias and palm barriers. But clearly these undertakings have not been successful. In the meanwhile, desert sands carried in by the wind are progressively burying whatever hope remains to El Faouar’s residents. « The situation is only deteriorating, and the worst is yet to come », sighs Mohamed. « The youth here have no choice but to leave for big cities in Tunisia or in Europe ». Migration spurred by climate change is becoming more real, more tangible. Without resources, the most fragile populations have no other alternatives. And El Faouar, it seems, no longer belongs to its local population.