Water efficiency, productivity and sustainability in the NENA regions (WEPS-NENA)

Background and sites

Tunisia is located in North Africa bordering Algeria in the west, Libya in the southeast and the Mediterranean Sea in the east and north. The total area of the country is 16.361 million hectares.

A Mediterranean climate prevails in Tunisia, with great variability going from humid in the extreme north to extremely arid in the southern part. The long-term average annual rainfall is estimated at 207 mm/year, with inter-annual variation ranging from 70 to 620 mm. Rainfall is also quite variable geographically, with about 600 mm in the north, 300 mm in the center, 150 mm in the south and less than 100 mm in the extreme southwest. Annual evapotranspiration varies from 1200 mm in the north to more than 1800 mm in the south.

Tunisia has limited water resources; the total internal renewable water supply is estimated at 4195 million m³ per year with 3420 million m³ surface water and 1595 million m³ groundwater per year. The total renewable water resources are 4615 million m³ per year, resulting in a per capita amount of 400 m³ per year, which is below the absolute water scarcity threshold (FAO 2016, AQUASTAT main database).

Most of the exploitable renewable surface water is mobilized in 37 dams, 258 small hilly dams and 913 hilly lakes with a total storage capacity of 2708 million m³ (MINAGRI, 2018). About 77.4 % of the total water withdrawals are used by agriculture for irrigation.  

The cultivated areas cover about 4.2 million ha, representing 26 percent of the total area of the country and 47% of the agricultural and pasture lands. Tunisia has one of the highest cultivated areas per capita in Africa (0.45 ha).

Rainfed agricultural production is predominant in Tunisia, but is constrained by the aridity of the climate, the irregularity of rainfall and the degradation of soils.

Fruit trees, cereals and fodder cover about 95 % of the total cultivated areas. Five-year average shares during the period 2014-2018 were 56%, 29% and 10% respectively for fruit trees, cereals and fodder. Olive is the main sector covering about 80% of fruit trees area, followed by almond (8%) and palm trees (2%) (MINAGRI 2018).

Durum wheat, barley and bread wheat are the main cereals grown in Tunisia, covering respectively 46%, 44% and 9% of the cereal areas. Average yields during the period 2014-2018 are about 17 t/ha for wheat and 8.5 t/ha for barley. Tunisia is a net importer of cereals; the local wheat production covers on average about 30% of the domestic supply but imported quantities of grain can increase significantly during dry years (FAOSTAT, 2018; MINAGRI 2019).

Several actions were taken during the last decades to improve yields and reduce fluctuations in production. During the second half of last century, large-scale irrigation works, including the construction of dams and conveyance structures, resulted in the expansion of irrigated lands. The total surface equipped for irrigation in 2018 was over 435 thousand ha, which represent 8% of cultivated lands. Localized irrigation systems are used on 49% of the irrigated lands and sprinkler systems on 28%. (MINAGRI 2018a)

The main irrigated crops are fruit trees, vegetables and cereals with respective shares of 58%, 28%, and 12%. Olives and date palms are the main irrigated fruit trees covering respectively 41% and 18% of irrigated fruit trees.

In 2018, the contribution of the irrigated sector to agricultural production was about 35% and its contribution to the total exported agricultural products in terms of economic value was up to 25%.

On average, Tunisia has a deficit in the external food trade balance of about 22% in terms of economic value. Wheat is the main imported product (26% of the imports) while olive oil and dates are the main exported agricultural products with 38% and 16% of agricultural exports respectively (average 2014-2018, Minagri, 2018).

Although substantial progress has been made during recent years, yield levels and water productivity in rainfed and irrigated sectors remain generally low. Average yields in the period 2014-2018 are about 1.7 t/ha for rainfed wheat and 3.4 t/ha for irrigated wheat (Minagri, 2019).

Olive trees, cereals and date palms are the most important sectors in terms of food production and water use. They are also the key sectors in national economic activity in the international trade balance and foreign currency fluxuation. The project will focus on these strategic sectors with the objective of improving water productivity as well as economic productivity in a sustainable way.


Olive sector in Tunisia:

The olive sector is strategic in Tunisia in terms of economic, social and food balance and exports.

  • Area of olive plantations   : 1.7 million ha,  94% rainfed
  • Area of irrigated orchards : 92 thousand ha, 2% hyper intensive
  • Number of trees              : 95 million
  • Average production         : 983 thousand tons.
  • Average yields                : 0.6 t/ha
  • Average oil production     : 180 thousand tons, 6% of world production.
  • Number of olive farmers  : 310 thousand,  60% of total number of  farms
  • Number of working days  : 27 million for production, 8 million for oil sector
  • Contribution of agricultural added value : 12.3%
  • Contribution to agricultural exports        : 33.6%
  • Contribution to GDP                             : 1.2%

*averages during the period 2014-2018, Minagri 2018, FAOSTAT, 2018

Cereal sector in Tunisia

The cereal sector Tunisia is strategic in terms of social and food balance. Wheat and barley are the main cereals grown in Tunisia and have the main share in imported food products.


  • Area of cereal plantations   : 1.2 million ha, 98% rainfed
  • Share in agricultural lands  : 30%
  • Area of irrigated cereals     : 65 thousand ha, 14% of irrigated lands
  • Average production           : 1.6 million tons
  • Average yields of wheat     : 1.7 t/ha rainfed, 3.3 t/ha irrigated
  • Average yields of barley     : 0.8 t/ha rainfed, 2.8 t/ha irrigated
  • Number of cereal farms     : 250 thousand, 63% of them are under 10 ha
  • Number of working days    : 7.6 million (5.4% of workforce in Agriculture)
  • Contribution to agricultural added value : 9.9%
  • Share in agricultural imports                 : 32.3%,  43% with maize imports
  • Contribution to GDP                             : 1.0%


*averages during the period 2014-2018, Minagri 2018, FAOSTAT, 2018

Date sector in Tunisia

Date palm trees are mainly grown under irrigation in the oases of southeastern Tunisia. The sector is highly dependent on water from non-renewable deep aquifers. The social, economic and environmental dimensions have special importance because of the vulnerability of the ecosystems and the increasing pressure on water resources.


  • Area of date palms plantations   : 53 thousand ha
  • Share in agricultural lands         : 1.3%
  • Number of trees                       : 5.2 million, 75% are productive
  • Average production                  : 245 thousand tons
  • Average yields                         : 4.6 t/ha            
  • Number of date palm farm       : 59 thousand
  • Number of working days          : 9.7 million (6.9% of workforce in Agriculture) 
  • Contribution to agricultural added value : 8.9%
  • Share in agricultural exports                 : 16.0%,  43% with maize imports


*averages during the period 2014-2018, Minagri 2018, FAOSTAT, 2018


Project in the country

Tunisia is involved in the three work packages of the NENA-WEPS project: establishing an international standard water accounting system, implementing a series of interventions to increase water efficiency and productivity, and ensuring that higher efficiency/productivity achievements for the 2030 time horizon are attained sustainably.

In the work package on water accounting, the objective is to promote the adoption of international standards and scientifically sound ‘water accounting systems’ based on remote sensing and aimed at setting sustainable limits of water consumption. This will cover the determination of cropping realities and crop mapping, and the measurement and monitoring of evapotranspiration (ET). The integration of the ET measurement stations within the RNE-ET network will allow the validation of ET models and improve the accuracy of crop evapotranspiration estimations (ETC). The project will also assist in the implementation of water accounting & auditing and investigation of water scarcity situations.

In the work package on water productivity, the project will focus on establishing baselines for strategic crops and production systems, identifying improvement potential and promoting best practices through capacity building and knowledge production and dissemination.

The third package concerns building awareness about gender and sustainability issues. The project will seek to ensure that the actions taken within the planned activities will respect social equity and sustainability. In particular, the integration of the nexus approach - water-food-energy - within the operational and strategic action plans, will be promoted.

Project Sites

Three sites were selected for the implementation of the project in order to cover different situations of climatic, social and production systems:

The first, in the northern part of the country, the governorate of Jendouba, is characterized by a sub-humid climate with an annual precipitation of about 500 mm/year and the availability of surface water storage capacity. The dominant production systems are based on rainfed and irrigated cereals as well as olive trees.

The second is in central Tunisia, in the region of Kairouan, having annual precipitation of about 300 mm/year, where the main crops are olive trees and cereals grown mainly under rainfed system. The development of irrigation from shallow and deep ground water aquifers may be a source of environmental problems and compromise the sustainability of the current production systems.

The third site is in the south-western region, where annual precipitation does not exceed 100 mm, and where intensive irrigated agricultural activity based on the date palms is present in the oases of Tozeur and Kebili governorates. This system is based mainly on non-renewable, saline water from deep aquifers, and the issues of improvement of water productivity and durability are essential in these environments where the pressure on fresh water is increasing as a result of the depletion of the groundwater resources and the increase of demand.

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