IN an oasis notorious as the hottest place in Africa, Tunisian farmers say they are fighting a losing battle with drought and disease that is driving many to abandon plantations where they grow some of the world’s finest dates.
The date palm orchards at Kebili oasis used to form green, fertile islands in an arid landscape. But now many of the trees are dying, and dry, bare and fruitless trunks stretch up into a clear blue sky.
The southern Tunisian oasis has endured a decade of drought, and the challenge of irrigating the palms has grown as costs have risen and power cuts become more frequent, farmers and environmental activists say.
“We haven’t seen rain since 2011. Underground water is boiling hot. When the electricity is cut off, the farmers can’t use the water for irrigation, and the waterwheels are broken,” said farmer Mouhamed Bouaziz. “Everything came at the same time”.
He is also treasurer of the local water association, which helps date growers get access to irrigation from underground aquifers.
The government, struggling to pay state salaries and fund wheat imports, was ignoring the farmers’ plight, he said.
One of a string of oases on the edge of the Sahara desert, Kebili grows many of the dates that Tunisia exports to dozens of countries, mostly in Europe.
Farmers are long accustomed to extreme heat – the highest temperature ever recorded in Africa, over 55 degrees Celsius (131 degrees Fahrenheit) was logged in Kebili in the 1930s.
But they say the effects of climate change – the lack of rainfall together with an infestation of date mites blamed on the dry weather – are making life even tougher.
“If we continue like this with drought and draining the water layer, in 20 or 30 years we will not find dates in Kebili,” said environmental activist Moez Hamed, peeling the stumps of desiccated palm fronds from a tree.
Other trees show signs of the infestation, with bunches of dates wrapped in the webbing spun by mites as they feed.
“It is a new pest that we have not seen before, and its cause is drought,” Bouaziz said.
More than a third of farmers have stopped using the irrigation his association provides because they could no longer afford to, Bouaziz said, and all were considering abandoning the oases.
Like many others despairing of a future in their own country, they were also ready to risk the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to seek a new life in Europe.
“Farmers, especially the youth who will inherit these oases and preserve them, have migrated by sea,” Bouaziz said. “Those who survive, survive, and those who die return in a large box.”