From March 26-30, an estimated 50,000 people flocked to Tunisia to participate in the first World Social Forum to take place in the Arab world. The theme was dignity — a term that had become a battle cry during the revolutionary protests that took place throughout the region in 2010 and 2011.
Organizations working on water issues gathered a day earlier to hold discussions on the central role of water in the fight for human dignity. During the December 2010 protests in Tunisia that sparked the wave of revolutions in the Arab World, thousands had marched chanting, "Yes to bread and water! No to Ben Ali!" It was a clear message that the people would no longer tolerate a regime that denied them their basic rights.
Now, more than two years later, Ben Ali is gone, but the water and bread crisis is deepening as the interim government led by the right-wing Ennahda party prepares to sell off remaining public assets to multinational corporations, including a much coveted public water and sanitation system.
Until the revolution, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had promoted the authoritarian state as a structural adjustment poster child. It was ranked first in the Arab World by the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index for having liberalized its economy by reducing tariffs and other trade barriers, privatized public assets, eliminated key food subsidies, repressed wages and adopted an investment code friendly to foreign capital.
When the revolution erupted, it told an entirely different story about the alienation of poor and working class Tunisians on whose backs the country had become "globally competitive".
When the revolution erupted, Ben Ali, who had already privatized 160 state-owned enterprises since the late ’80s, was about to start selling off the country’s water and sanitation services, SONEDE. According to Fourti Ridha, a representative of SONEDE who spoke at the water gathering, the public utility is one of the country’s few success stories. The national public utility provides drinking water to 100 per cent of those living in urban areas and more than 90 per cent of rural Tunisia, achieving the highest access rate in the entire MENA region. As result, it is coveted by multinational water companies who would be able to walk in and claim the market with little investment.
It appears that what Ben Ali failed at, Ennahda would pursue. Despite the well-document evidence that water privatization has led to steep rate hikes, the loss of democratic control and often lower quality services enabling private corporations to maintain profit margins in other parts of the world — one need only look at the experiences in the Maghrebian cities of Rabat, Casablanca Tanger/Tetouan to see how privatization in this sector has affected the region — the Tunisian government appears to be pursuing the privatization of the water and sanitation utility.
Like elsewhere in the world, proponents of privatization use a discourse of water scarcity to argue that public management and lower tariffs are enabling Tunisians to be wasteful of their water resources. A French language newspaper recently ran an article arguing that years of subsidized water had made Tunisians wasteful and unaware of their plight within one of the world’s most water -scarce regions.
Tunisia is the ninth most water-stressed country in the world according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Severe water shortages plague the entire Mediterranean region. 115 million people (close to a third of the population) live below the water poverty line of 1000 m3/year per capita, and 28 million people in the Mediterranean live in conditions of absolute water scarcity of less than 500 m3/year per capita.
But making Tunisians cede control of their water services to foreign multinationals who would charge them a higher price for water does not address the reality of Tunisia’s water -guzzling industries that are the real culprit in the country’s water crisis.
Phosphate, one of Tunisia’s main exports, requires three cubic metres for every ton of phosphate concentrate mined. Gafsa, the region where phosphate is mined, has gone from oasis to a highly water-stressed region. The industry is now competing directly with the basic needs of the people of Gafsa. Recently, angered by water cuts, people took to the streets and clashed with police. Locals claim that tap water has also been contaminated by chemicals used by the phosphate industry forcing them to drink bottled water.
Now the Tunisian government is entertaining a highly contested proposal from Shell to explore for shale gas in the Kairouan region using hydraulic fracturing technology, which has been rejected throughout Europe and protested across North America for its impacts on groundwater. A growing number of communities in North America have documented contamination of drinking water by the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process.
Though Ben Ali has been ousted, his economic vision continues to be pursued by other actors who, much like their predecessor, have found strong external alliances. The EU has just signed a privileged partnership agreement with Tunisia to ensure continued market access and protection for its investments in the region.
For Tunisians demanding dignity, the battle continues. For communities to live without control of their water — whether we are talking about drinking water and sanitation services, or water supplies required to maintain food production and livelihoods — is the greatest attack on human dignity. It is why water is as central in the struggle for democracy in Tunisia as it is elsewhere in the world.