Lack of accessible potable water across Tunisian constituencies is one of the Tunisian parliament’s key focuses. Acknowledging this priority and the need to solicit input from both experts and their constituents, the Assembly of the Representatives of the People’s (ARP) Agriculture Committee reached out to international partners including NDI, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the German Society for International Development (GIZ) to request their support. While responding to this request, NDI’s Parliamentary team faced the challenge of connecting the parliament to their constituents in the midst of a pandemic, and consequently turned to Tunisia’s strong civil society to represent citizens’ voices.
Tunisia’s water code was created in 1975 and has never been amended. Since then, Tunisia has undergone significant ecological, political and economic changes, resulting in the need to adapt the code to ensure access to water for future generations of Tunisians. With new water code legislation circulating in the parliament, the president of the ARP insisted that the lack of water is a challenge for humanity today, and that given climate change, Tunisia must adapt its strategies to deal with water scarcity.
While Tunisia’s northern territory borders the Mediterranean Sea, southern Tunisia has a desert climate. The country’s division of resources, from water to wealth, favors the coastal regions. Meanwhile, citizens in Tunisia’s southern and interior regions face obstacles accessing economic opportunities as well as basic resources such as water. For example, interior regions see less rainfall and have fewer dams than coastal regions, leading to water shortages in rural areas. Moreover, due to the lack of knowledge on water conservation, rural areas experience poor management of irrigation channels, exacerbating water scarcity. According to a representative of the Ministry of Agriculture, key water treatment plants are located in Tunis, too far from the areas in Central and South Tunisia that need water. Amending the water code thus presents a chance to address these regional imbalances through equitably distributing water resources and protecting these resources from mismanagement.
In January and February 2021, UNDP, GIZ and NDI organized a series of national and regional knowledge sharing sessions in which these civil society organizations, local governors, representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture and experts from the Sustainable Development Network discussed local challenges and solutions to accessing clean water. These regional consultations represent the first time the ARP garnered input encompassing each of Tunisia’s 24 regions toward an overarching legislative goal.
In an initial effort to inform members of parliament on the issues of management of and access to water, NDI facilitated a parliamentary study day on January 9. Over 100 participants from civil society, experts from the Sustainable Development Network, the ARP, journalists and agricultural workers engaged in debate on the content of the water code bill. This study day was an opportunity for members of the Agriculture Committee to learn from the recommendations of international experts rather than starting the code from scratch. Five experts from the Sustainable Development Network, UNDP, and GIZ presented on different components of the water code.
At the conclusion of the event, members of civil society shared recommendations on the water code that the parliament will consider as amendments. Civil society emphasized the need to improve water governance, to use water resources (including oases) sustainably, improve drinking water quality, regulate water harvesting and ensure equitable access to water for vulnerable communities. CSOs also encouraged the ARP to consider how to make permits and authorization processes easier to understand, for example when building wells, so that fewer Tunisians face penalties for simple infractions.
Following the parliamentary day, the President of the Agriculture Committee said, “On the behalf of the Agriculture Committee, we are happy with today’s deep and relevant dialogue. We believe that there are specificities in each region that must be taken into consideration. So it requires opening the dialogue to other participants.” Subsequently, NDI, UNDP, and GIZ organized four regional consultations with over 150 attendees, encompassing all 24 of Tunisia’s governorates to facilitate negotiation of the water code bill. These consultations, both virtual and in-person, allowed the MPs to practice their representative and legislative functions and amplify their openness and transparency to civil society across the country. During the sessions, the Agriculture Committee was able to observe local governments’ water management practices and affirm the committee’s dedication to ensure access to water in the regions. In each consultation, civil society representatives presented the region’s particular needs and challenges, showing the ARP the importance of integrating CSOs into the policymaking process.
This series of consultations demonstrate how successful and inclusive policy-making is possible, even during a pandemic, if national political expediency, adequate resources and sufficient local engagement are present. In this case, the ARP’s Agriculture Committee is a potential recipient of Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) funds, a U.S. foreign assistance agency that incentivizes international governance partners to pursue sustainable economic development through responsible governance strategies. In Tunisia, most communities are unaware of national-level resources that may be available for acute issues or how to advocate for their communities' needs to access these funds. Moreover, when national policymakers connect with local stakeholders, they are able to link prevailing issues among different local communities--such as wastewater treatment in Tunisia--and find overarching solutions. Such engagements with local CSOs also develops a path for accountability. As local stakeholders understand national processes and resources, they can mobilize to demand transparency and equitable use of funds and attention. Throughout the continuation and expansion of this process, NDI will work to ensure that Tunisian citizens and government institutions work together to enhance the country’s environmental resilience.
The National Democratic Institute’s work with the Tunisian Parliament and CSOs is funded by the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
Author: Sania Chandrani is a Program Assistant on the Middle East and North Africa team.
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.