Virtual Water and Food Security in Tunisia

Tunisia is an arid country, where water scarcity significantly limits agricultural production. As a result, the country imports most of its basic foods and all of its livestock feed, focusing its own agricultural production on high-value crops for export. Liberalization of agricultural trade and dependency on the world grain market has social implications for Tunisia's small farmers and other vulnerable citizens. With the domestic need for food increasing, and the availability of water decreasing, it is time for Tunisia to reflect on the nature of its agricultural trade flows and their impact on the economy, water resources, and food security. This reflection could benefit from considering the value of "virtual water" in agricultural trade. "Virtual water" refers to the water implied in products traded between countries. An agricultural product's value in virtual water is the amount of water consumed to produce it. Thus, when a country exports an agricultural product, in effect it also exports the value of the water that was used to grow it. Conversely, importing food can be a way of acquiring the equivalent in water. Importing virtual water can allow a country like Tunisia to maximize its water resources and meet its food demands. However, it can also have adverse impacts, lowering local resilience and enabling unsustainable population growth. This project will explore the potential and constraints of an agricultural policy for Tunisia that incorporates the virtual water concept in a food security strategy. Researchers will assess the issues associated with virtual water and food security, and its impact on water saving. They will also identify strategic measures that can make individual households less vulnerable to food insecurity. The study will have three components: analyzing sectoral data and targeted household surveys to assess the quantitative importance of virtual water; testing and validating a technical and economic frame of reference for estimating virtual water; and assessing the opportunity costs of water use. In addition, it will build the capacity of staff and managers of regional monitoring units to manage and use water resources, and raise awareness among stakeholders. Researchers will also determine the integral water balance (fresh water, salt water, and virtual water) of Tunisia's economic regions and/or bioclimatic zones. They will assess the flows of food products across the border, and identify those crops with a comparative advantage based on the opportunity cost of water, and rank them according to their contribution to food security. The project will produce databases for evaluating the importance of virtual water that validate technical and economic standards and estimate opportunity costs. It will produce at least one scientific publication on the results of modeling the links between food security and virtual water. It will also develop a policy paper on the impact of food security strategies on women and other vulnerable groups. The project will share information with stakeholders through a series of awareness workshops and online.

Project ID


Project status


End Date

Saturday, February 18, 2017


36 months

IDRC Officer

Marwan Owaygen

Total funding

CA$ 285,400


North of Sahara


Agriculture and Food Security

Project Leader

Dr Abdallah Benalaya


Ecole Superieure d'Agriculture de MOGRANE

Institution Country


Institution Website