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Conflicts Related To Water Services In Tunisia

Congress: 2015
Author(s): Laurence Morin (Montréal, Qc, Canada)

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 7: Global challenges for water governance,


The trial-and-error path that defines social, economic and political life Tunisia since its revolution in January 2011 brought about many fundamental changes and debates in a large array of sectors. Water sector is one of them.

The current work uses an exploratory approach to understand the actual dynamics among actors implied in water services provision in Tunisia, a country facing challenges of development and transition at every level. As a contribution to the discussion on water governance, our research aims at identifying explicative components of conflicts that take place in the domain of water services. Facing a multidimensional issue that translates technical and political decisions into social outcomes, we used an approach called "conflictuality analysis". This emerging approach in the area of social sciences links the dynamic of conflicts to their spatial dimension (Pelletier, 2009). While a conflict per se implies sociospatial interactions, conflictuality addresses length, repetition and location of a set conflicts that occur in a predefined unit of space and time.


In the framework of water services, conflictuality analysis observes the conflict-process taking place among actors in water sector: operators of the public utility, water users, and political actors. Conflictuality analysis of water services is thus a key for reading the performance of this public service in a specific context. The Tunisian context provides an interesting case study of water service management under a system unstable politically and institutionally weak.

Our research question thus attempts to identify how geographical, social, political and institutional components of Tunisian water system could be bearer of conflictual activity in water services. To do so, we adopted a twofold methodology. First, we realised a fieldwork research in Tunis in 2012 where we conducted 17 interviews with experts in water management in Tunisia, with representatives of the main public utility and with NGO workers to enable our understanding of the Tunisian water system. Secondly, in 2013, we built a database made of 304 articles in French retrieved from seventeen Tunisian dailies online. All articles retrieved describe or mention an issue related to water service in Tunisia that occurred between January 1st and December 31 2012. Our results were updated with a short fieldwork carried out in spring 2014.

We analysed the geographic distribution of these conflicts with other geographic variables such as unemployment rate, ratio of population without service and level of regional economic development. We also examined the geographic distribution of conflicts against that of two more variables related to the water sector: projects of development in water sector and service interruption due to technical problems.


Data collection resulted in 38 conflicts related to water services. The duration of these conflicts varies from 1 to 183 days and the number of actors implied varies from one to four. Using governorates (i.e. administrative region) as units of analysis, we observed that in those governorates where there are frequent conflicts, numerous service interruptions due to technical problems occur. At the same time, some technical problems arise repeatedly in specific governorates where no conflicts take place, as in the great region of Tunis and in the surrounding governorates. Regarding the geographic distribution of development projects in water sector and the presence of conflitcs, no clear correlation was observed. Moreover, our results show that a high percentage of households connected to water services in some governorates may obscure a lacking service, as it is the case in the governorates in the central part of the country. The most numerous conflicts related to water conflicts take place in poor governorates in Central and Northern Tunisia, and in the governorates located in the tourist region. Whereas water resources are scarce in the tourist region, Northern Tunisia has abundant water resources. The existence of conflicts thus cannot be explained by the abundance of the resource but rather by its accessibility, which results of public policies in the water sector. The analysis of conflicts related to water services is entrenched in a multitude of variables in political decision-making and in social expectations toward a new political system. These conflicts can be interpreted as a symptom of an unequal resource allocation, which is the result of physical factors as much as political ones.


In sum, our analysis indicates that the performance of water services is dependent on its governance, which in turn, depends on political governance at the national level. Conflictuality analysis enables the understanding of conflicts generated by a public service when its global performance is hindered by socio-political conditions. Conflicts related to water services appear as the result of many decades of publics policies regarding water supply that contributed to exacerbate regional disparities. Conflictuality analysis also highlights the impacts of social transformation mechanisms on a water system. Unequal access to water services in Tunisia is part of a social problem constructed over years under the realm of the former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and the conflicts we attempted to identify translate social claims for a better governance of water services. 1. Banque Mondiale. (2014) «Ressources renouvelables d'eau douce intérieures pas habitant»,¬ateur/¬ER.H2O.INTR.PC

2. Besbes M., Chahed J., Bargaoui Z., Matoussi M.S., Mhiri A. (2002) L'avenir de l'eau: un nouveau challenge pour la Tunisie, Institut tunisien d'études stratégiques, 142p.

3. Touzi, S. (2009) La nécessaire évolution des impératifs d'équité et d'efficacité dans la gestion de l'eau potable en Tunisie, thèse de doctorat, Université Pascal Paoli De Corse, 300p.

4. Pelletier, M. (2009) La décision territoriale en conflit; Analyse spatiale de l'activité conflictuelle, Ville de Québec, 1989 à 2000, thèse présentée à la Faculté des Études supérieures de l'Université Laval, 159 pages

5. Earl, J., A. Martin, J.D. McCarhy, S.A. Soule, «The Use of Newspaper Data in the Study of Collective Action», Annual Review of Sociology, 2004, vol.30, p.65-80

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