In southern Tunisia, communities struggle to dispose of their green energy
In Segdoud, a small village of 100 people in southwest Tunisia, the rain has not fallen for months, and the local olive groves are burned by drought.
Each morning, a pick-up truck from Gafsa, a town 45 miles away, delivers a tank of drinking water for the village.
“Last summer, the carrier could not come because of a last-minute problem, we couldn’t drink for a whole day, under the burning sun. Without this… we would be dying,” says Amor, 55, a farmer.
Access to drinking water is one of the many problems the villagers face.
"In 2021, almost half of the region’s farmers were unable to sell their harvest as it was too dry for the market"
In the area, people almost entirely rely on the date industry, but production has continued to decline due to severe drought since 2016, according to the Local Farmers' Union of Tozeur.
In 2021, almost half of the region’s farmers were unable to sell their harvest as it was too dry for the market, according to La Ruche, a local association.
“Here everything is lacking. We don’t have roads, nor school or even a coffee shop,” says Amor. After the pandemic more than ever, the vision of a job is a mirage: one in four citizens is unemployed in the Tozeur region.
Even the National Phosphate Company, which has employed generations of local people in the mines on the border with Algeria, has drastically reduced its production in recent years.
Since the pandemic, the closest mine in Redeyef has closed, leaving the youth at home. “Here the only alternative left to young people is to try to leave for Europe. But I want my children to live here, to get married here,” says Romdhane, a local farmer.
Yet, in these isolated areas, foreign investors have seen a potential resource: the sun. In December, the Tunisian government approved five solar energy projects in the south of the country.
One of them, a 120 MW mega solar project, will be built in the fields beside the village. It comes with promises to supply more than 100,000 Tunisian homes with electricity and cut 150,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. “This goal seems achievable,” according to Ilyes Benammar, a trade unionist and Tunisian Electricity and Gas Company (STEG) employee.
As elsewhere in Tunisia, even in the most remote areas, Segdoud is connected to the national power grid. “Except this, everything else is missing here,” says Romdhane. “Will all this energy bring us jobs and services?” he asks.
While some villagers have welcomed the project, believing it could bring jobs, others are convinced that the money could be better spent. “This project will cost around £75m. Have you seen this place? Do you know how many wells and roads we could build with this money? The construction should be starting by the end of 2022, but we know almost nothing about it,” says Abdallah, another Segdoud resident.
According to Walid, STEG employee and unionist, the huge amount of electricity produced in the Segdoud’s lands will be diverted to the big coastal cities, where demand is highest.
“Over time, the investors want to send part of this energy to Europe too,” he says. “In return, the poorer inland regions will get nothing, except a dozen jobs for maintenance and clean-up.”
"The villagers have been protesting since the 2011 revolution: they want the wind turbines to be moved further away from the houses, and have stopped paying their bills as a way of pressure"
Tunisia aims to produce 30% of its electricity from renewable energy sources – hydro, solar and wind power – by 2030, according to its updated national climate plan.
But how the government is going about it has left a bitter taste in the communities who have hosted them? People have had their land confiscated and have not benefited from any of the promised electricity or local services?
The project was financed by the World Bank and built by the Spanish company GAMES\MADE and is today managed by the Tunisian State-owned company STEG. Residents of Borj Essalhi village in the northern tip of Tunisia, have been fighting for ten years for compensation since the installation of the first Tunisian wind farm in the early 2000s.
Villagers say their land was taken away from them. “At the time of Ben Ali, we could not refuse. We were dispossessed by force,” says Hammadi, a farmer who had a wind turbine built in his garden.
In addition to occupying ancestral farmland, the wind turbines have brought a series of nuisances such as electricity cuts and health problems related to the proximity to the power plant, such as chronic sleep disorders and an increase in heart rate, according to the residents’ medical reports.
The villagers have been protesting since the 2011 revolution: they want the wind turbines to be moved further away from the houses and have stopped paying their bills as a way of pressure.
In return, STEG has been cutting electricity to the village for several weeks. “Since then, electricity cuts have been recurring. Our metres have never been renewed. We cannot turn on too many appliances at the same time,” says Samir, a member of these 147 families asking for compensation.
“The Segdoud scenario is likely to be similar to that of Borj Essalhi. Investors make very large profits, while totally ignoring their social responsibilities towards the local communities,’’ says Wassim Khlaifi, a member of the Tunisian Platform for Initiatives, a civil society organisation focused on social and economic rights.
"We want to invent a new way of conceiving renewable energies, that differs from the extractive model of the exploitation of resources. We are fighting for a green and just transition. To do this, we need the cooperation of the State, in order to make these mechanisms accessible to people"
In Segdoud, the 400 ha that is to be exploited are originally collective agricultural lands, managed by the management council of collective lands in Redeyef, whose task is to organise agricultural and pastoral areas.
Since the enactment of the Tunisian solar plan in 2015, this huge surface has been taken over by the State, to provide them to the investors for the solar project, without concertation. To this day, local farmers and members of the council reclaim ownership over them.
“Why did they have to choose a fertile land? A few miles away, close to the Chott-el Gharsa, there could have found plenty of salty and non-agricultural lands,” says Brahim Ben Abdallah, a local farmer and member of the council.
But local unions started to push back on energy project developments.
The UGTT traders from the Tunisian Electricity and Gas Company (STEG) – the country's largest trade union – and the Tunisian Platform for Alternatives, have started to organise community assemblies in southern Tunisia to discuss the right to energy with local communities, and create energy cooperatives that allow people to have a say in the energy produced on their lands.
They propose the cooperative model as opposed to a public-private partnership, “who leaves the people on the side”.
The activists intend to rely on the model of social and solidarity enterprise. “The financing mechanism already exists in Tunisia, such as those of development agencies, the green climate fund… Enterprises can benefit from an ad-hoc credit line that favours business start-ups. It is now necessary to decline it for renewable energies”.
With these credits, local communities would own their own solar plants: they would call on solar panel installers and thereafter sell the electricity to the Tunisian State-owned company STEG.
"We want to invent a new way of conceiving renewable energies, that differs from the extractive model of the exploitation of resources. We are fighting for a green and just transition. To do this, we need the cooperation of the State, in order to make these mechanisms accessible to people.”
On March 12, 2022, these activists gathered a crowd of almost fifty people in Segdoud to introduce the idea of energetic sovereignty. “People were very sceptical at first. They want the solar plant project to happen because they believe in the promises made to them.”
But, a few days after their visit, a local group of farmers reached out to the Platform. “They want to meet with us again and figure out how to concretely create their own alternative energy project.
Arianna Poletti is a freelance journalist based in Tunis.
Aïda Delpuech is a freelance journalist based in Tunis. Passionate about ecology, she mostly covers and investigates themes related to the environment, agriculture, pollution, and agri-food.