The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

Tunisia's Water Insecurity--A Threat to US National Security

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Danele Richardson

Tunisia is a fledgling democracy located in North Africa, between Libya and Algeria along the Mediterranean Sea, making it a unique nation with an identity that straddles Europe, the Arab world, and the rest of the African continent.  The United States has long been vested in supporting and partnering with nations that share democratic values and ideals.  Specific to Tunisia, the friendship runs deep—beginning more than 200 years ago with the 1797 American Friendship Treaty.[1] When the 2011 Arab Spring began in Tunisia, democracies, including the US, were overjoyed, although choosing democracy did not alleviate many of the problems that sparked the revolution.  Water scarcity is a key security issue being exacerbated by poor governance and economic policies, which in turn fuel increased irregular migration, reducing social service accountability, and nourishing an environment for violent extremist recruitment.  Water scarcity is a significant security issue, the current governance and economic policies are worsening the problem, and water scarcity consequences pose a threat to US national security, necessitating action by the US to improve the situation.

Water Scarcity

Water scarcity is a security issue because it is a basic human need.  When basic needs are not met, people are forced to move, resort to violence, or violate laws to acquire the needed resources.  Water is already so dangerously scarce that the World Bank estimates that by 2030, “if left unchanged the Middle East and North Africa region will ‘fall below the absolute water scarcity threshold of 500 cubic meters per person per year’.”[2] Due to multi-year droughts and water mismanagement, Tunisia’s dam stock capacity is at 35%, up from December 2022 at 22% due to some much-needed rain.[3] The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization considers Tunisia’s water seriously stressed and placed it on a list of 14 developing countries in this category.[4]

Additionally, beyond Tunisia’s borders, the following African countries are also water insecure:  Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Niger, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan.[5] Many of these countries also suffer from recurring military coups and violent extremist organizations, which only further stimulate irregular migration.  Tunisia become the beacon for safety, resources, and access to Europe, because its neighbors include Libya, a failed state, and Algeria.  The water shortage across the region will motivate people to move to and through Tunisia, where “the greater the population, the greater demand for food and the greater the use of unsustainable farming practices.”[6]  Tunisia is already a net exporter of terrorism, and expanding water and food scarcity will only increase the risk of more military-aged male fighters joining terrorist organizations.[7]

Irregular Migration

Before discussing the poor governance and economic policies that are exacerbating Tunisia’s water scarcity problem it is imperative to understand its population and how irregular migration is particularly straining its economy and social service capability, which in turn makes water scarcity worse. Tunisia’s population is only 12.3 million but growing because of irregular migration.[8] This creates an increased strain on government-provided services without an increase in taxable income.  In 2022, a record high of 32, 371 Tunisian and foreign migrants arrived in Italy and 38,713 were apprehended by the Tunisian government. Another 6,782 Tunisians were also caught along a Western Balkan route.[9]

Highly educated citizens who migrate out due to lack of local opportunity also create a gap in professions that would normally pay taxes, also reducing accessibility to key services like medical care and law enforcement.  For those transient, the countries in which they work rarely approve extended work visas, forcing migrants into illegal industries in which they do not pay taxes, while simultaneously requiring access to social programs.  So, as people migrate to Tunisia, chasing the dream of a better life, migrants are often disappointed and find little to no opportunity, deteriorating public services like water and sanitation, and no pathway to citizenship, which then leads to very risky illegal maritime migration in unsafe boats to Europe.  In 2023, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights reported that “1,313 migrants had died off the coast of Tunisia.”[10] Irregular migration and unnecessary loss of life will not ease until problematic government policies in water management, sanitation, and pathways to citizenship are improved.

Problematic Governance and Economic Policies

Problematic governance and economic policies that contribute to water scarcity include poor water management, limited accountability, poor waste management, and no pathway to citizenship for migrants.  Underlying these poor policies are corruption, lack of accountability, and politicians’ focus on maintaining their positions over implementing enforceable legislation.  Like the struggle with economic reforms, government officials are more focused on keeping their jobs.  Tunisia’s economic return from the COVID-19 pandemic has been weak.  Contributing factors include a system of subsidies, high domestic borrowing that prevents private sector credit, and “regulatory barriers to growth, such as authorization to access many sectors, strict and discretionary controls on foreign exchange and regulatory capture of incumbents, which have not been addressed by reforms.”[11] Meaningful governance also slowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and because President Kais Saied suspended parliament in 2021.[12] Although Tunisia’s parliament reconvened in 2023, it was only after the election dismal 11% voter turnout rate and a subsequent dismissal of recognition by the opposition.[13]

Poor Water Management—Tunisia’s water management has been slow to provide meaningful water resource distribution, water balance, and storage, despite a codified constitutional right, because of “high levels of bureaucracy and ill-adapted policies.”[14] The government initiated a water rationing event in 2023, which they blamed solely on climate change and drought.[15] Another poor management example is Tunisia’s recent levy of a 16% increase in water prices, but only in high consumption sectors like the tourism industry, with no change for small consumers.[16] In much of the MENA region, the World Values Survey indicates “people believe that a key role of government is to keep prices down and that governments are reluctant to raise tariffs due to the risk of widespread protests.”[17]

Limited Accountability—The US International Trade Association noted in 2022 that, “Tunisia’s water code governs the allocation of water resources, with priority to the supply of potable water for urban consumers,” which sounds very promising.  However, the Nexus Regional Dialogue Programme in the MENA Region assess that “nothing extensive has been attempted to find a solution for the state of water stress or even to apply the existing regulation for irrigation.”[18] This has enabled illegal irrigation practices with no accountability for the agricultural sector, which uses 80% of Tunisia’s water supply.[19] Without accountability, government policies will lack legitimacy and curb citizen buy-in, especially in conservation and quota usage.

Poor Sanitation Management—Students during the Regional Security Studies Field Study witnessed the poor sanitation management in Tunis.  Outside of neighborhoods and city centers, there were large unmanaged acres of trash, with people and even sheepherders traversing regularly.  There appeared to be a lack of street-side trash cans or dumpsters in many areas as well.  The reason this sight is so common is due to Tunisia’s attempt to decentralize waste management down to the municipality level, which reads well on paper because it should “facilitate local participation and increases transparency in decision making.”[20] Unfortunately, the central government has under-resourced many of the municipalities, which has led to pollution, lack of garbage pick-up, and even a dangerous public health phenomenon known as “double corruption.”  This happens when illegal waste is dumped into landfill facilities and then spoiled foods are transferred out of the trash and back into local shops.[21] Like the governance policies, there is also a lack of accountability and resourcing, so landfills are left unchecked, creating significant health concerns for the local population.  Additionally, because municipalities “own” the trash, government officials can and do block the entrepreneurial spirit of citizens willing to start businesses to tackle the problem in innovative ways.[22]

No Pathway to Citizenship—Mass illegal migration is challenging for any nation.  In Tunisia, however, there appears to be little consideration for finding a pathway to citizenship.  Instead of seeing much of the immigrant population as an opportunity for Tunisia in the economic sector, the government has placed blame on the immigrants for already failing policies.  President Saied has made multiple comments publicly indicating that people from other parts of Africa are not welcome in any capacity.  In February 2023, he asserted, “that an increase of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa was part of a conspiracy to change Tunisia’s demographics.” Following this, Saied publicly ordered security forces “to halt all illegal immigration into Tunisia and said any undocumented migrants must leave.” [23] In response, the World Bank even paused Tunisia’s Country Partnership Framework because, “the safety and inclusion of migrants and minorities is part of our institution’s core values of inclusion, respect, and anti-racism in all shapes and forms.”[24]

Problem with System of Subsidies—Heavy reliance on a system of subsidies is one economic factor making the water crisis worse.  While it may seem good to the consumer that water prices are fixed, all water institutions are operating at major losses, deepening deficits.[25] This leaves the nations with reduced funds to implement or invest in necessary technologies like desalination, improved water meters or increased job creation for enforcement of water restrictions.  Coupled with a system of subsidies across many state-owned enterprises, it is no surprise that Tunisia’s public debt has risen from 40.7% of GDP in 2010 to 79.2% of GDP in 2022, putting their access to the International Monetary Fund at risk.[26]

Overall poor governance and economic policies have led to ineffective, inadequate, and unenforceable legislation to tackle Tunisia’s water scarcity problem.  Despite increased tariffs and rationing, there is still a lack of accountability or effective waste management programs with no hopeful outlook on the horizon.  Blaming irregular migrants for the consequences of poor policies has only contributed to worsening water scarcity, increased human rights violations, and squandered economic reform opportunities.

US National Security

Tunisia may not be a security threat on the scale of China, but if it evolves into a large-scale humanitarian crisis or a failed state, then democracy in North Africa is at risk, along with the escalation of terrorism threats.  The National Security Strategy specifies that today’s threat is
more diverse and geographically diffuse…and associated forces have expanded from Afghanistan and the Middle East into Africa and Southeast Asia.”  If water scarcity is not addressed by the international community, then citizens in the MENA region will have yet another reason to be angry with the West, particularly the United States.  Tunisia’s long history with Palestine deepened after Hamas attacked Israel in October 2023, and old feelings of anger towards the US for support of Israel surfaced, with the popularity of the US dropping in polling from 40% to 10% among Arabs.[27]

Coupled with ideological anger and a lack of basic needs like water, food, waste sanitation and an isolated irregular immigrant community, the country will see a new surge in recruitment for VEOs. Counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel are also at risk, as the new Niger government rescinded the US military status of forces agreement on 17 March 2024, citing “the American bases and civilian personnel cannot stay on Nigerien soil any longer.” And began seeking security support from Russia.[28]

Actions for the US Government

This problem will be particularly challenging for the US, because solutions must be implemented with the cooperation of the Tunisian government, require significant financial aid and have the best chance of success if the Tunisian government would enable a free market and remove state ownership of key industries.  Additionally, implementing checks and balances to reduce corruption and improve accountability is necessary.  Helping Tunisia reform efficiency and governance will help improve the social contract with its citizens.[29]

  • Recognize that water scarcity is a contributing factor to extremist recruiting and radicalization
  • Aid for enhanced drought monitoring, proactive design, management, and engineering[30]
  • Aid for landfill improvements
  • Expand training with the Tunisian military to facilitate improved security cooperation with neighboring countries[31]
  • Expand desalination business opportunities to increase water sources
  • Deliberate strategy to ensure Tunisian citizens see and benefit from US grants and programs


Tunisia cannot control the global climate, and solutions to its water scarcity problem are multi-faceted.  The buzzword approach to any complicated problem is a “holistic whole of government solution.” While not necessarily wrong, the reality is that basic needs and safety must be met first to provide space for further growth, economic prosperity, and enduring statehood.  Tunisia is on the precipice between democracy and autocracy because of the lingering disappointment in the government’s public services post-revolution.  Ensuring that Tunisians have access to fresh water, proper sanitation and sustainable irrigation techniques will lay the foundation for fixing corruption and spurring economic growth.  Without a dedicated focus on increasing sustainable access to water first, citizens and incoming migrants will be forced to continue leaving, preventing deep, meaningful democratic reforms from rooting and thriving in Tunisian soil.

Lt Col Danele Richardson is a Weather Officer and a student at the Air War College completing a Masters in Strategic Studies. Upon graduation, she will become the Deputy Commander for Air Task Force 23 at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina. 

This paper was written as part of the Air War College Regional Security Studies Seminar and Field Study-Mediterranean.

[1] US Embassy, Tunisia, “Treaty of Peace and Friendship Signed at Tunis" (August 28, 1797).

[5] Charlotte McAlister et al, “Global Water Security 2023 Assessment,” UN University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, 2023, pg. 90.

[6] Conor M. Savoy and Alexandra Norris, “Supporting Water Programming in the Sahel,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 2022, pg. 2.

[7] US Embassy, Tunisia, Country Team Brief, 4 March 2024.

[8] The World Bank, “Total Population—Tunisia,” 2022.

[9] Tasnim Abderrahim, “Tunisia Increased Fragility Fuels Migration Surge,” in Human Smuggling and Trafficking Ecosystems—North Africa and the Sahel, 2023 Series, Global Initiative, July 2023, pg. 24.

[10] Bouazza Ben Bouazza and Sam Meta, “After Record Year, Tunisia Reports Migrant Deaths from Shipwreck near Libyan Waters,” Associated Press, 14 February 2024.

[11] The World Bank—Middle East and North Africa, “Tunisia Economic Monitor: Migration amid a Challenging Economic Context,” Fall 2023, pg. 23.

[12] Matt Hebert, “Losing Hope—Why Tunisians Are Leading the Surge in Irregular Migration to Europe,” Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, January 2022, pg. 33.

[13] USAID, “Country Development Cooperation Strategy,” pg. 36; Tarek Amara, “New Tunisian Parliament Elects Its Speaker in Its First Session,” Reuters, 13 March 2023.

[14] USAID, “Country Development Cooperation Strategy,” pg. 36; Ibid. pg. 8.

[16] Ibid.

[18] Tarek Keskes, Hakim Zahar and Abdelkarim Ghezal, “Nexus Assessment for Tunisia: Synergies of the Water, Energy and Food Sectors,” The Nexus Regional Dialogue Programme in the MENA Region, September 2019, pg. 14.

[19] World Bank Group, “Climate Risk Country Profile Tunisia,” 2021, pg. 16.

[20] Wasiim Chaabane, “Decentralized Waste Management in MENA Countries: Lessons from Tunisia,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 6 May 2021.

[24] Andrea Shalal and Angus McDowall, “World Bank Says Pausing Future Tunisia Work Amid Reports of Racist Violence,” Reuters, 6 March 2023.

[25] World Bank, “Country, Climate and Development Report,” November 2023, pg. 6.

[26] World Bank, “Tunisia Overview,” 22 March, 2024.

[27] US Embassy, Tunisia, Country Team Brief, 4 March 2024.

[28] Jessica Donati and Sam Mednick, “Niger’s Junta Ends Cooperation with US, Putting Military Operations at Risk across Sahel,Public Broadcast System News Hour, 17 March 2024.

[29] De Waal et al, pg. xii.

[31] Tunisia War College, Overview Brief, 5 March 2024.

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