It is the only source of water for a village of 5,000 people. Some travel for hours, others with donkeys, up the narrow slopes of a mountain to reach the spring and get their hands on a 20-liter container of precious water.

Government water tankers are supposed to circulate throughout the province to alleviate water scarcity created by the depleted levels of water – due to lower rainfall – in Kairouan’s main dam. Kairouan was once rich in water resources and even provided water to other major governorates such as Sfax, Mahdia, Sousse and Monastir.

Drop by drop

Local authorities’ anti-thirst plans consist in providing residential areas with mobile water tanks. However, the process is not systematic and does not reach all villages including the villages of Zaghdoud, Wadi Kasab and others.

Many of these communities are therefore left to find whatever water they can and protests often in erupt at the height of water scarcity in summer. These protests often turn into ugly confrontations between the police and local residents, leading to imprisonment and violence. Other areas choose to suffer in silence.

Local authorities retort that cuts to the service are necessary due to increased consumption and the cost of special outreach efforts to hard-to-reach communities such as Zaghdoud.

Donkey life

In the village of Zaghdoud itself, local residents – often women and children – walk the steep slopes to the Ein Al-Kaf Spring, the only water source. The luckiest families use donkeys but these can be an expensive commodity.

In these rugged rural areas, donkeys are a precious means of transport. The price of a donkey starts 300 Tunisian dinars (EUR 105) for a small animal and can be as much as 1,000 Tunisian dinars (EUR 350) for a larger one.

Demand is high as donkeys are said to endure the terrain. in Zaghdoud, donkeys and mules bring water from the heights through rugged pathways and valleys, and woods of cacti and pines. The water is often filled in 20-liter containers and strapped in pack-saddles on the donkeys’ backs with ropes.

The Zaghdoud residents rely on the spring water which flows through a metal tube to a large tank which is now full of mud. Water mixes with soil when people come with their donkeys and mules, which pollutes the tank and makes the spring water muddy.

In many families, women and children carry water on their heads. All the community’s water needs, including construction, weddings and health, must be negotiated through this arduous sourcing process.

Young men often undertake back-breaking shifts to bring enough water to build a house. The spring in Zaghdoud cannot be accessed by car or motorbike.

Hepatitis cases

“The government must take responsibility and alleviate the people’s thirst,” Radwan Fadnasi, head of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights in Kairouan, told Correspondents. “It should save them the hardships of bringing water and the risks of pollution therein.”

Fadnasi emphasized the rising number of hepatitis cases caused by polluted water sources, as well as risks associated with people resorting to other unhealthy, alternative sources of water.

State capacity is limited in many of the arid areas around Kairouan and villagers often ignore health warnings. In places like Zaghdoud, people continue to carry on using water sources they have known for centuries and that are intimately tied in with their culture.

Legend of Zaghdoud

The legends of Zaghdoud tell about their great grandfather, Zaghdoud, whom they consider a sacred man. The water of this sacred spring is said to have started flowing from under his feet. Meanwhile the local school and mosque still lack taps.