The Power of Disappearance, Water and Jerid in Tunisia,
Lecture given in plenary session at the 2nd Conference The International Water History Association (IWHA) The Role of Water in History and Development - 10th-12th August 2001, in Bergen (Norway).
Although water is obviously the essential principle of the presence of oases in the desert, in the region of Jerid (South-Tunisia) water seems to be confined only in a registry of political and social claim, as a possible (and rare) free medium of expression. In some oases, water has even disappeared from the palm grove’s surface.
There are historical reasons that can explain such a situation. It is perhaps above all a story of the control. He who has in hand this vital resource keeps in check all the local society. A story, because water has always been stakes of power in this type of region. The recent changes of control from a local ‘jamaa’ to a colonial and then a national power enlighten the strategic significance of this element, but these reorganisations are not the first ones. Water is today a field of political and social discussions also because it is the only legitimate one permitted to oasian people and especially gardeners.
The positions and the behaviours of the different actors on the oases towards the use of water are heterogeneous. The state itself has a ‘schizophrenic’ attitude. In one hand, the administration wants to proceed to a mining exploitation of the water resource to take possession of other resources (to foreign currency through a particular cultivar of dates, Phœnix dactylifera, var. deglet nur). In the other hand, the state needs to control and ‘protect’ it in the aim of keeping or restoring the ‘traditional scenery’ of oases (government foresees to develop a Saharan tourism, the Mediterranean region being now blocked up). The local farmers have displayed a diversification of their practices, among other things a diversification of the origin of their water of irrigation with private wells. This diversification of thoughts and practices about water is a source of various conflicts of representation.
In a recent work (Battesti, 2000), I have purposed a new comprehensive concept of ‘resources’. They are the ‘socioecological resources’: they combine in the same movement real and conceptual resources. The overall idea is first that a kind of natural resource is exploited thanks to such-and-such perception of the environment. In the second place, actors can play not only with different resources but also with different perceptions and practices of the environment (and they have to). The possibilities of perceptions and practices of the environment together can be symbolised by a space defined by three ideal-types. These are the ‘ideal-types of the oasian praxis’ and they are part of ‘socioecological resources’: actors make use of natural resources (water, in this article) and make use of ‘manners of use’. With this approach, we can reread the shared history of the Jerid and water. It is no longer a history of actors on the environment and particularly the water; the evolution, share and contamination of ‘what underlies the action on water’ will tell us how regional and national control of water resources have been embedded into patterns of economic and political control.
To download the text of the lecture: see the version for the edited book A History of Water, The World of Water: Volume III.