Mansour Rajeb is wrapping a plastic protective sheet around a branch of dates in his oasis near the village of Bchelli, in southern Tunisia. Tying it up, he lingers.
“I’m worried,” he says. “The quality is getting worse. The dates are getting drier.”
Like thousands of farmers across the region, the effects of the climate crisis and water scarcity are threatening his livelihood. “When the quality is poor, we receive lower prices. I’m earning less. This year, I’ll earn a third of last year, which was an average year.”
On the road out of Bchelli, a gust of wind makes the sand rise like steam. Beyond the palm trees lies desert; a flat, barren terrain of scrub, rock and sand. Communities have survived here for thousands of years, but their changing environment and practices may soon make it uninhabitable.
Overall temperatures here have risen by about 1C since 1988, according to data collected by the meteorological office in Tozeur, the capital of the region’s western district. This far exceeds average global warming levels.
“Temperatures used to peak in August and then fall, but now the heat persists until October,” says Taieb Foudhaili, of South Organic, a date exporting company based in Kebili. Given this pattern of warming, humidity levels are falling. The plants adapt by releasing water. The result, says Taieb is a drier, poorer product. His company must now do more sorting to maintain quality standards.
Global heating has also created shorter periods where date palms can flower and pollinate, according to Nabila el Kabri, an agronomist based in Kebili. As a consequence, Nabila has observed a decline in the productivity of dates per hectare.
But it’s not just rising temperatures causing anxiety. Over the past few decades, and particularly after Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, unlawful plantations have spread like blots across the white landscape. The state has failed to exert proper controls. There are now 38,000 declared hectares of palm tree across the Kebili region, though the real figure is probably as high as 50,000 hectares. Two thirds of the entire country’s dates are produced here.
Tunisia’s population has trebled since 1960, while gross national income per capita has fallen since 2010. In a region where almost half of young people are underemployed, agriculture offers a lifeline for many. After olive production, dates are Tunisia’s second most valuable agricultural export. The sector is worth more than US$ 200m. This revenue is vital, sustaining more than 600,000 people.
But a consequence of ever more palm plantations is water scarcity. Date palms are thirsty. On each hectare there are between 100 to 140 palm trees. Each tree requires the equivalent of 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth of water each year. Neither the old natural springs nor base groundwater can meet this demand.
Farmers are resorting to drilling and pumping water from aquifers. There are now about 30,000 wells, hundreds of metres deep, across the country. Half of these were drilled illegally, according to a 2017 report by Tunisia’s Ministry of Agriculture. Water levels are being increasingly overexploited across southern Tunisia. Half of this water is not renewable.
“If we keep creating these new oases, with thousands of hectares of new trees, then over 10 to 15 years we won’t have any water left. It’s a question of sustainability,” says Nabila El Kabri.
From the 13th century, water systems and inter-cropping practices meant Tunisians were masters in managing their scarce resources. However, modern palm plantations are essentially monocultures, producing the valuable Deglet Noor variety of date and little else. When this crop fails, farmers have little to fall back on.
Some are already suffering. Mansour said he has farmer friends who have already sold their trees from the new, poorly irrigated oases, because their crop was “so feeble”. Nabila says it is only a matter of time before date production as a whole will have to migrate north to Gafsa.
Ultimately, both problems Tunisia’s date farmers face – climate change and water scarcity – arise from a similar myopia; a common failure to see things holistically. “We are only thinking about the product,” said Taieb, “when we should be thinking about the air, the tree and the soil. We need to change the way we think.”
Lying in the shade of a palm tree in Chebika, 71-year-old Younes Belgasim is an unlikely figure of hope. His oasis is thriving. Younes is one of 18,000 people benefitting from a US$ 5.7m World Bank project that launched in 2014. The project provided Younes with seeds for vegetables and fruit trees, it improved his land’s soil and irrigation, and he got better fencing (protecting his plot from local wild boars).
The World Bank initiative supported Younes in restoring the traditional ‘three levels’ inter-cropping system. On his oasis, the date palms give shade to vines, banana, pomegranate and fig trees, while vegetables and wild grasses grow beneath.
This system demands more from farmers, and it may deliver less immediate commercial pay-off than exclusive Deglet Noor date production.
Both factors deter those farmers looking to work less and earn their revenue in one date harvest season. Inter-cropping can use more water, though it preserves water by maintaining humidity levels within the oasis ecosystem. Crucially, it improves the soil quality and strengthens biodiversity. And it diversifies farmers’ assets. This ecosystem-based farming can be a win-win: it protects farmers from climate, economic or disease-related shocks, while also preserving the natural environment.
“It is getting hotter,” says Younes, “but I’m not worried about climate change”. In a situation that’s becoming seriously worrying, perhaps his sense of security, as well as year-round earnings, will persuade others to farm in this way.