Forest fires, wilting crops, and dwindling shorelines: How scorching temperatures are destroying Tunisia's natural resources

Scorching temperatures destroys Tunisia's natural resources
22 August, 2023

An intense heatwave in Tunisia has ignited wildfires in its picturesque hinterland, devastated harvests of drought-stricken farmers, and caused “unbearable” conditions for outdoor labourers, underscoring the dire threat of climate change to the country's resources and ecology.

On July 24, temperatures spiked to 50 Celsius in the capital Tunis, the highest ever recorded, while hitting 49 Celsius in the northeastern town of Bizerte.

The temperatures were at least five degrees higher than usual peak summer temperatures, offering a bitter foretaste of how the climate in the North African country is likely to trend, experts say. 

"The soil is depleted and dry, making it more susceptible to burn… It makes me angry to see these forests burn. [I'm] Angry that the state is not taking enough action to address the roots of this crisis"

“We have predicted this for a long time and we expect it to get worse,” Hamdi Hached, an environmental engineer and activist who has produced several documentaries on the impact of climate change, told The New Arab. “Climate change could be disastrous for the next generation, driving more socio-economic instability.”

Amid the blistering heat, many citizens sheltered indoors under fans or air-conditioning, but this overburdened power grids and led to hours-long electricity cuts. For the 50% of the population that lacks any air conditioning, along with outdoor labourers, the heat was overpowering.

“A hot day is unbearable from the start,” Bassem, a young handyman who spends most of the day outdoors, told The New Arab. “9 am can feel like mid-day.” 

Firefighters try to extinguish wildfires in Jendouba, Tunisia [Getty Images]
Firefighters try to extinguish wildfires in Jendouba, Tunisia [Getty Images]

However, the soaring temperatures were more than an inconvenience for residents. In north-western Tunisia, home to hundreds of thousands of hectares of lush forest, they were lethal.

Throughout July, wildfires blazed down at least 450 hectares of forest near the north-western Tabarka region, according to the head of the region’s forest district, eviscerating its precious pine. The fires intensified during the week of July 24, ripping towards the nearby Maloula village at a dizzying pace and forcing 2,500 people to flee their homes.

After the flames had subsided, at least one resident had been killed, more than 170 had been hospitalised for smoke inhalation, and an untold number had lost their homes. The damage was even more pronounced in neighbouring Algeria, where flames killed upwards of 35 people and displaced thousands. 

Hached noted that while fires are a natural part of a forest’s lifecycle, the frequency and intensity of recent outbreaks are well over the region’s “regenerative capacity.” The fires “have become too much — and it’s not just because of climate change,” he added, pointing to over-development and illegal logging activities as other major contributing factors.

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Aziza Fakher, an intersectional climate activist who volunteers with the climate justice movement Youth For Climate Tunisia, told The New Arab that the burning of the country’s green forests – for which Tunisia gets its nickname “Tounes El Khadra” (“Green Tunisia”) – is a disturbing sign of the deteriorating environment.

Whatever the original source of the fires, she said, “the soil is depleted and dry, making it more susceptible to burn… It makes me angry to see these forests burn. [I'm] Angry that the state is not taking enough action to address the roots of this crisis.”

It is not just Tunisia’s forests that are at risk due to the changing climate and human interference – it is also its farmland, coastlines, and Mediterranean waters, which an estimated three million people rely on either directly or indirectly for their livelihoods, according to the Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fisheries. 

According to a 2021 World Bank study on Tunisia’s climate risks, Tunisia is “expected to become generally hotter and drier” in the coming decades, suffering from frequent drought and rising sea water levels that will lead to “consequential loss of agricultural land, infrastructure, and urban areas.”

For farmers, the central problem is already water access. Due to steadily climbing temperatures, combined with dwindling rainfall, Tunisia’s water reserves are at their lowest levels ever, prompting the government to introduce strict quotas on water usage. This makes it almost impossible for small farmers, especially those without independent wells, to irrigate their crops adequately, leading to disappointing harvests. 

“This year, we had no rainfall — all through the winter,” said Soraya Gaies, who owns a 20-hectare farm in the small village of Borj El Aifa, near Kef, to The New Arab. “We’ve never seen weather like this in our entire lifetimes.” 

“All farmers are suffering from this lack of water,” she added. “It is a catastrophe.” 

This year, Tunisia’s summer fruit production dropped 24% due to the drought, causing it to lose out on high-value exports. At the same time, the country’s grain harvest dropped by a staggering 60%, forcing the country to rely more on expensive imports. The result has been devastating for Tunisian cattle farmers, who now struggle to afford basic animal feed, a central ingredient of which is grain, pushing some to sell off their herd just to pay the bills.

“Farmers don’t know how they’ll feed the animals,” said Gaies. “Every year this is getting worse... We are really worried about the future.

Fakher, of Youth for Climate Tunisia, added: “These issues are because of climate change… and they are impacting already vulnerable communities.”

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Along the country’s coasts, fishermen are equally frustrated by the changing climate. In towns like Gabes, Sfax, Kerkannah, and Zazas, fishermen who could once fill their nets with lucrative octopus, sea bass, cuttlefish, shrimp, and squid, are seeing their catches diminish. This is partly due to rising temperatures in the Mediterranean, which have made the marine environment unsuitable for these traditional species while attracting less welcome creatures such as the ravenous blue crab

In addition, rising seawaters and rocky shores have made it more arduous for small fishermen to take out their boats while overfishing by massive trawlers has caused their stock of fish to shrink. Feeling the economic pinch, many have sought extra income by contributing to the profitable trade in people smuggling that thrives across the Mediterranean.

Ironically, Hahed says, climate change is likely to become a growing driver of such migration, as warming temperatures increasingly disrupt the economies of North and Central Africa.

“Many people and politicians are not aware of how critical the situation is,” Hached said. “We now see thousands of people trying to migrate to Europe. As climate change worsens, this could become millions.”

Stephen Quillen is a Tunis-based journalist and editor covering North African affairs. He has also written for The Telegraph, Al-Monitor, Middle East Eye, the EU Observer, and The Arab Weekly.

Follow him on Twitter: @stephen_quillen