A full $210 million of this credit line went to fund projects of water and sanitation between 2012 and 2016, with a $100 million dedicated to water projects and $110 million for sanitation. The World Bank, via its subsidiary IBRD, continued to support the areas of drinking water and irrigation from 2017 to 2019, with an annual average of $23.7 million. This amount is notably lower compared to the Bank’s funding levels during the 1960s and 1970s. Regarding drinking water, the National Company for the Exploitation and Distribution of Waters (SONEDE) obtained financing from the World Bank to execute one of its most significant projects, namely “Delivery of Drinking Water to the Urban Centres and the Greater Tunis Area” initiative. The World Bank completely funded the project and its additional components between 2005 and 2015. The initial cost was $59 million, with a cost overrun of $20 million, resulting in a total cost of $79 million.15
Over the same timeframe, the World Bank facilitated meetings between SONEDE and several international donors, with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) acting as a guarantor for creditors. The World Bank, represented by the IFC, provided a grant of 7 million dinars ($2.27 million in 2023 dollars) on August 7, 2023, to the Gafsa Phosphate Company. This grant was allocated to conduct a study on a 'Hydraulic Transportation’ project for phosphate, which sought to transport phosphate from production to processing sites. This is potentially concerning because the grant’s official purpose is to support the company in exploring scenarios and techniques to pump phosphate from the mining basin utilising water that would come from a desalination plant that is being planned in the coastal area of Skhira, with an estimated cost of 1100 million dinars ($349 million in 2023 dollars).16
This is sufficient to prompt suspicions that the World Bank aspires to infiltrate the phosphate production network via this project by establishing partnerships between the Gafsa Phosphate Company and foreign investors who will partake in both the project implementation and the exploitation. If true, this initiative could gradually pave the way for the privatisation of the vital phosphate sector, with the water crisis in the mining basin serving as justification.
The World Bank provision of funding or financial guarantees to the public institution responsible for drinking water in Tunisia marks a notable shift in its policy orientation and increased involvement in the water sector. Collaborating with other donors like the German Development Bank KFW, the World Bank has begun promoting two key concepts: enhancing the governance of the drinking water management institution and advocating for realistic pricing of drinking water. This approach represents a clear step toward potential future privatisation of the drinking water supply.
The World Bank policies affecting Tunisia’s sanitation sector
The sanitation sector in Tunisia has undergone several phases of change, beginning with the establishment of the National Office of Sanitation in 1974 to collect and treat wastewater in urban areas. In 1993, this office was further tasked with protecting the overall water environment, signifying a notable shift in its mission. This shift can be attributed to two main factors:
The incorporation of the National Office of Sanitation into the Ministry of Environment, which gave it an environmental dimension. This move enabled the office to access substantial funding, particularly after the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.
The involvement of the World Bank as a key donor for sanitation projects.
The World Bank funded the development of a major wastewater treatment plant. This development and expansion of the Chotrana Station for Treating wastewater north of the Tunisian capital (1996-1999), thus increased its treatment capacity to reach 40,000 m3 per day. The World Bank supported this project with a loan of around $32 million at the time. It also funded the project of the Al Attar wastewater treatment plant west of the capital, the largest treatment station in the country with a capacity of 60,000 m3. The project cost was around $104 million in 2005. The station connected about 600,000 residents residing west of Tunis to the public sanitation network.17
Moreover, the World Bank financed the construction of wastewater treatment plant in Sfax and smaller facilities in Sousse, Monastir, Kairouan and Tataouine. It also funded a marine channel project designed to transport treated wastewater from the plant in Sousse, along with supporting several studies aimed at enhancing sanitation services and the agricultural use of treated water.18
Since 1995, the World Bank has been providing technical and logistical support to the National Office of Sanitation. This support has led to the privatisation of sanitation services, previously referred to as a ‘spin-off’, which commenced in 1997 within the framework of restructuring the National Office of Sanitation. Starting with the launch of the national programme of waste management in 1996, the World Bank aimed to create an organic link between the sanitation and solid waste management sectors to facilitate private sector involvement, based on so-called public-private partnerships.
To create the impression that this policy began as a Tunisian initiative, the World Bank established a network of local experts tasked with producing reports and publishing studies advocating the advantages of privatising sanitation and waste management. Senior positions within public administrations promoted this strategy using varied labels and slogans, thereby advocating the World Bank's directives.19
As a result of this pressure from the World Bank and the influence of the reports produced by local experts, Tunisia made amendments to its Water Code, originally issued by Law No. 75-16 of 31 March 1975. These changes aimed to introduce privatisation into the water sector, even if only as a temporary measure, as outlined in Law No. 01-116 of 26 November 2001. Article 86 was revised to reaffirm that water is a national resource that ‘must be developed, protected and used in a sustainable manner.’20 Additionally, Article 88 was amended to explicitly permit ‘the production and utilisation of non-conventional water resources that meet specific conditions for private consumption or use on behalf of others within a defined industrial or tourist area.’
The wastewater treatment plant in Tataouine, funded by the World Bank, marked a significant milestone as it became the first facility to be fully entrusted to a private company in 2003. This signalled that that the private sector had the potential to become involved in all primary and secondary activities undertaken by public institutions through concession agreements, with the French company SEGOR Industries receiving the inaugural concession.21
The transfer of exploitation rights for treatment stations to the private sector continued in several cities until 2010. However, smaller treatment plants did not attract private companies, nor were they of significant interest to the World Bank, as they were not seen as attractive targets for private investment.
In May 2023, after the enactment of Law No. 15-49 of 27 November 2015, regarding public-private partnerships, the World Bank achieved another significant milestone. It established the first partnership between the public sector, represented by the National Office of Sanitation, and the international private sector, represented by the French company, Suez, known for its extensive involvement in water and sanitation projects across Africa. This partnership was facilitated through a $126 million loan.22
The project involves developing and operating 15 wastewater treatment plants in Tunis and Ariana in the north of the country, as well as in Sfax, Gabes, Medenine and Tataouine in the southeast. It aims to enhance the treatment of wastewater by incorporating tertiary treatment process to ensure the treated water meets agricultural usage standards.
The reason the World Bank did not directly extend this loan to the public institution for implementing measures to improve water quality to meet industrial and agricultural standards is quite clear. The World Bank’s policies are not geared towards enhancing the capacities of public institutions. Rather, they are focused on penetrating the public sector on behalf of the private sector, and especially on behalf of international capital. The private sector’s successful two-decade long involvement in the sanitation sector paved the way for the World Bank to embark on a large ‘public-private partnership’ in Tunisia.