Tunisia’s Dry, but How Dry?




Late last month, the Associate Press reported that Tunisians are calling for better policy and assistance, as the small North African country battles drought.  These stories illustrate the need now, more than ever, for data and analytics that can help decision-makers understand the significance and potential impact of the country’s adverse weather.  Fortunately, agricultural intelligence, in the form of localized weather data provided by aWhere, provides insight into the unfolding situation in North Africa.

A review of aWhere’s data indicates that Tunisia has been experiencing an almost unrelenting and prolonged dry spell since early June, at the latest.  Large parts of the country, particularly in the west, have seen significantly less precipitation than normal, when compared to 10-year norms.  In some areas, precipitation has declined by 75 percent or worse.  Figure 1 above compares precipitation across Tunisia from June to October, as a percentage difference to long-term norms.  The area shown in this map aligns with areas of agricultural activity.


Figure 1: Large areas in Tunisia received dramatically less rain than usual, when comparing this year to 10-year norms. 

To measure the abnormal conditions another way, Figure 2 compares current precipitation levels to 10-year norms with a count of grids by their percent difference from these norms.  According to this chart, 86 percent of the country’s area that is monitored by aWhere experienced drier than normal conditions over the course of the summer and early fall.[1]  aWhere’s localized data contains 1,560 virtual weather stations in Tunisia alone, providing great visibility into weather conditions at a local level.[2] 


Figure 2: Nearly all grids measured by aWhere show lower than usual precipitation levels since early June

A drought of this duration and severity has significant implications for Tunisia’s economy.  Agriculture is responsible for an estimated 9 to 15 percent of Tunisia’s GDP, and employs 15 percent of the country’s working population, according to the World Bank.[3]  This level of agricultural dependence is lower than many sub-Saharan African economies, but is far higher than those of the United States and European Union.  In addition, Tunisia’s crops are grown by both subsistence farmers for domestic consumption, such as wheat, as well as by commercial farmers, exporting produce such as dates and olive oil to European markets.[4]  As a result, this drought has the potential to impact both domestic food security, as well as export earnings.

This summer’s drought comes at a time when Tunisia isn’t well-equipped to deal with abnormal weather and its impacts.  The country as a whole is already dry, and 80 percent of the available water resources are currently used for agriculture.[5]  When countries receive lackluster rains, many rely on irrigation to maintain production levels, but only 4 to 7 percent of Tunisia’s agricultural land is estimated to be equipped for irrigation, leaving many farmers at the mercy of Mother Nature.  For those farmers that do irrigate, they often rely on groundwater resources, and Tunisia, like many other countries, sits atop a stressed aquifer system that runs the risks of depletion and pollution.[6]

Given the size of Tunisia’s agricultural sector, the drought’s negative impact on agricultural production will undoubtedly have adverse effects on the country’s farmers and economy more broadly.  Tunisia has shown its susceptibility to rising food prices in the past, as rising food prices are often cited as the catalyst for the Arab Spring uprisings that originated in Tunisia in 2011.  In a country still working to get on its feet after a revolution, the onset of drought is worrisome.  Unfortunately, the country’s stubborn drought is expected to persist.   As Figure 3 shows, Tunisia isn’t projected to receive new rains in the coming week. 


Figure 3: Tunisia's forecast for the coming week shows less than 12mm (half an inch) of rainfall for the country’s agricultural regions.


[1] aWhere’s coverage includes most of the globe, but is limited to agricultural areas.  aWhere’s data does not monitor Tunisia’s desert regions.

[2] “Virtual weather stations” are aWhere’s 9x9km2 grids that monitor the agricultural earth.  These virtual stations provide more localized information than physical weather stations, due to their greater volume.  For more information about aWhere’s virtual weather stations, contact us at beawhere@awhere.com

[3] World Bank, Employment in agriculture (% of total employment), http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.AGR.EMPL.ZS?name_desc=true (Accessed October 10, 2016).

[4] FAO Stat, trade figures, http://faostat3.fao.org/download/T/TP/E (Accessed October 10, 2016).

[5] Drought Management in Tunisia by Dr. Issam Nouiri, Dr. Slah Nasri and Ing. Mohamed Tahrani,   https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/388709.%20Tunisia.pdf (Accessed October 10, 2016); FAO Aquastat Country Fact Sheet – Tunisia, http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/data/cf/readPdf.html?f=TUN-CF_eng.pdf (Accessed October 10, 2016).

[6] Study: Third of Big Groundwater Basins in Distress, NASA, http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=4626 (Accessed October 10, 2016).

Topics: Drought, Tunisia

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