Oasis sector in southern Tunisia: Green belt of Gafsa prey to climate change! (FTDES)

The oases of Gafsa, which cover around 3,000 hectares, or 5% of the total surface area of oases across Tunisia, are having considerable difficulty surviving against the challenges they face, according to the biannual Environmental Justice Review, published by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES).

“The oasis sector in this region suffers from a number of problems, with the negative impact of climate change and the succession of years of drought posing the main challenge. This drought is due to the scarcity of rainfall, the depletion of water resources, and the resulting high salinity of the water and soil. Urban expansion, pollution caused by industrial activities, and the agricultural model adopted, characterised by monoculture, are also factors that have aggravated the risks facing this sector.”

“The results of prospective studies on climate change predict that southern Tunisia will be seriously affected by climate change. Temperatures will rise by 1.9 degrees Celsius by 2030 and by 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2050, while rainfall is expected to fall by 9% up to 2030 and by around 17% in 2050.”

“Tunisia’s oases are likely to be seriously affected by climate change, especially as the depletion of groundwater resources will lead to an increasing drop in the level of water tables, a worsening of their quality and high pumping costs.”

//Support for export: Has the State’s policy exacerbated the degradation of the oasis sector?

Despite its economic importance to farmers in the region, the oasis is facing threats to its biodiversity and sustainability due to the country’s export subsidy policy.

The FTDES considers that the institutional, legal and organisational failings of the State are increasingly hampering good governance of this agricultural system.

“For years, Tunisia has been encouraging the cultivation of the “Deglet Noor” variety for purely profit-making purposes in line with the country’s commitment to international trade in agricultural products. However, Noor dates require huge quantities of water and are more susceptible to disease than other varieties. It has therefore become imperative for the State to review its policy in the oasis sector and adopt new strategies that will help generate economic profits while preserving the ecological balance,” the forum pointed out.

//The Gafsa Oasis: Environmental and human heritage

“The Gafsa oasis has been classified by the FAO as Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS) that must be preserved for future generations. This is due to the rich tangible and intangible heritage of biodiversity and its importance in achieving food security in the region, as well as the efficient use of soil and the rationalisation of water consumption,” said Noureddine Nasr, an agricultural engineer and researcher specialising in rural geography.

“the governorate of Gafsa is characterised by continental oases clustered in the delegations of South Gafsa, Legsar and Legtar, forming a belt that protects the environment and prevents the desert from advancing. It is also home to thousands of olive trees, vines and palm trees. Thanks to the region’s water resources and soil quality, agriculture has been possible there for decades.”

“What makes the Gafsa oasis unique is its association with the towns (urban agriculture), encouraging the integration of livestock farming. It is essentially family farming based on agro-ecological practices.”

“The farming system adopted since ancient times has been “multi-layered,” with crops spread over 3 levels. Grain and vegetables are grown on the lowest level, fruit trees such as olives and apricots on the second and date palms provide shade for the lower levels.”

“The oasis system plays a key environmental role in combating desertification, preserving the ecological balance and conserving biodiversity in desert areas. It also provides oxygen to towns and their neighbouring regions.”

The Gafsa oasis also plays an important economic role, providing jobs and improving food security through the abundant production of dates.

“Nevertheless, the Gafsa oasis is one of the areas suffering from the effects of climate change, which are increasingly threatening it. Its productivity has fallen considerably, and the lack of water has adversely impacted the richness of oasis products and led to a proliferation of single-layer oases.

It is also necessary to point out the increasing degradation of these oasis areas due to the excessive and irrational exploitation of water resources.

These scarce resources are under enormous pressure.

furthermore, demographic pressure has contributed to growing urban expansion and uncontrolled construction, at the expense of oasis areas.”

“It is also crucial to take into account the dilemma of the fragmentation of farms and the small farm area due to inheritance, as well as the loss of the commercial value of date crops and varieties, particularly with the emergence of new varieties that are better adapted to the market. Soil fatigue and salinisation are also additional factors to be taken into consideration,” the FTDES warned.

The record rise in temperatures due to climate change has led to the emergence of agricultural pests such as the dust spider, explained researcher specialising in biology and entomology, Samah Ben Shaaban.

//Supporting multi-layered agricultural systems

The current situation in the oasis sector calls for support for multi-layered agricultural systems, as studies have demonstrated their resilience and ability to withstand climate change, unlike modern oases that rely solely on Deglet Noor palms, as confirmed by Noureddine Nasr.

Intelligent irrigation practices must also be adopted to provide the palm trees and the various crops grown in the oasis with the quantity of water they need at each stage of their life cycle.

At the Regional Forum for Environmental Justice in Gafsa in 2021, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights stressed the importance of enforcing laws and legislation relating to the oasis sector, in particular the law on abandonment. It also called for tighter controls on unplanned construction on agricultural land and for action to combat urban sprawl to the detriment of oasis areas.

In addition, the cultivation of date varieties that consume less water should be encouraged, while preserving the soil, a crucial element of the oasis, and ending all practices that lead to its degradation, such as industrial pollution and toxic gases from institutions specialising in extractive industries like the Gafsa Phosphate Company and the Chemical Group.

It is also recommended that the old oasis model, capable of adapting to climate change, be adopted.

Environmentalists are also calling for the provisions of the National Charter for the Protection and Development of Oases in Tunisia to be activated.

This national declaration aims to recognise and consider the oasis system in all its environmental, social, economic and cultural dimensions.

Faced with these challenges, Tunisia should adopt and implement a vision of sustainable development in order to preserve oasis wealth and seek genuine alternatives to support farmers with the challenges posed by agricultural activity in oases and adaptation to climate change, recommends the FTDES.

Translated by Ben Dhaou Nejiba

Source: Agence Tunis Afrique Presse