Case Study At SONEDE, Tunisia: Tracking Illegal Consumption Among Drinking-Water-Utility Subscribers Based on An Existing Legal Framework Punishing Water Theft

Countries: Tunisia
Level: National
Region: MENA Region
Tags: Economic instrument | Institutional measure | Urban water supply
Target audience: Environmental authorities | Industry/business | Local government/municipalities | National government | NGOs and CSOs | Regional government | Students/university | Water authorities | Water companies

According to SONEDE’s statistics, the volume of drinking water consumed illegally in 2015 did not exceed 3.7 Mm3 out of a total volume of consumed water of around 447.6 Mm3. This represents an illegal consumption ratio of less than 1 percent. This rate is certainly low compared to other water operators.

The reason of this success is related to two factors. First, the existence of a legal framework that criminalises and severely punishes water theft. Second, the existence at the level of the drinking water utility (SONEDE) of a specific, updated and comprehensive internal procedure concerning the tracking of fraudulent water consumption.


Article 258 of the Tunisian Penal Code is very clear about what is considered as theft: “Anyone who fraudulently subtracts something that does not belong to him is guilty of theft. Fraudulent use of water, gas, electricity to the detriment of dealers is considered as theft.”

It should be noted that the maximum penalty that may be imposed for a water theft is a prison sentence of up to five years, according to Article 265 of the same code.

In practice, water theft may take several forms, such as: fudging the meter’s data with different techniques, re-establishing a water connection illegally after a disconnection, or connecting premises illegally to the public network.

In addition to above law, Decree No. 73-515 of October 30, 1973, approving the regulation of subscriptions to water, prohibits any misuse of water or equipment under articles 22 and 16.

Preventive measures are also foreseen within this decree, such as interior water installations improvement and surveillance (articles 17 and 20).

According to the decree, any regularly established abuse is sanctioned by cancellation of the subscription (Article 26.1). But if the abuse constitutes water theft, according to the Penal Code, in addition to disconnection, SONEDE’s districts follow a specific procedure to initiate criminal proceedings against fraudsters. This procedure is described in the internal regulation note no. 285 entitled “On the illicit consumption of water”, dated September 9, 2014, but an updated version of previous notes on the same subject.

These frequent updates could be explained by an increased incidence of water theft since 2011. For example, during the first quarter of 2016 alone, around 100 cases were reported in the districts of Greater Tunis, and another 50 in the country’s southern districts.


The note describes in detail the procedure that should be followed, and is divided into nine sections:

  • Definition of water theft cases
  • Preventive measures
  • Establishment of illegal consumption cases
  • Illegal consumption bills elaboration
  • Billing for damages
  • Conditions of conciliation and water reestablishment
  • Case preparation
  • Complaints instruction and follow-up
  • Files tracking

Additionally, the note recommends checking all bills quarterly and recording abnormally low levels of consumptions and cancelled subscriptions. In the case of detecting any infringement, a court bailiff is invited to establish a warrant, and the regional director of SONEDE then sends an official complaint to the public prosecutor for the court having territorial jurisdiction.

To ensure a rigorous follow-up of cases of water theft, regional departments are in charge of drafting official complaints and registering them. The regional departments must also send a copy of the register each quarter SONEDE’s central department of legal affairs.

SONEDE aims to achieve two objectives through this internal procedure: 1) to discourage its users from consuming drinking water illegally, and 2) to recoup damages and consumed quantities by urging offenders to “normalise” their situation.

SONEDE has established specific rules for calculating illegal consumption according to different categories of consumers (domestic, industrial, touristic, etc.) generally based on the user’s consumption record over the past eight quarters, multiplied by five. But specific variants are applied if records are missing or incomplete (e.g. a new subscriber or a cancelled subscription). Values are added if damage has been caused to the operator’s equipment.

This procedure allows SONEDE to mostly recover those quantities of water consumed illegally, often to obtain fair compensation for damages caused to the network.

Illegal users generally tend to pay for their illegal consumption for at least two reasons: first, because conciliation with SONEDE would certainly reduce the penal sentence; and second, because re-establishment of supply cannot occur without paying compensation.

Results obtained

  • SONEDE succeeded in increasing substantially the number of its subscribers (and the rate of drinking water supply in general).
  • The shift of focus from supply to demand helped to guarantee water affordability for the majority of domestic users and to preserve financial balance over the long term.

Success factors

  • Strategic view
  • Financial and statistical data availability
  • Responsiveness
  • Support of regulatory authorities

Indicators used

  • Different tariffs schemes from 1968 to 2016
  • Evolution of the number of subscribers
  • Affordability
  • Consumption per connection

This experience can be duplicated in the MENA region, depending on the level of law effectiveness and monitoring efforts.

Total costs

N/A, but the costs are partly or fully compensated by the higher revenues that result from reduced illegal consumption


SONEDE, “Statistics Report for 2015”

SONEDE,  “Annual Activity Report for 2015”

Law No. 68-22 of July 2, 1968, on Creating SONEDE, as amended by Law No. 76-21 of January 21, 1976

Decree No. 73-515 of October 30, 1973, on Approving the Regulation of Subscriptions to Water