First Published: 2017-08-11

Tunisian beachside town resists industrial pollution
After years of living with industrial pollution, residents of Tunisia's Gabes are fighting back.
Middle East Online

Phosphate mining and processing industries have left areas in Tunisia heavily polluted.

GABES - Next to a palm grove, a blackish mud flows into the sea. After years of living with industrial pollution, residents of Tunisia's Gabes are fighting back.

Close to the Chott Essalem beach and in front of a rare coastal oasis, the state-owned Tunisian Chemical Group (GCT) has been processing phosphate since the 1970s.

The authorities say the plant pumps 14,000 tonnes of phosphogypsum into the sea every day. On top of the toxic mud, the factory also pumps phosphoric acid into the air.

"In the past, our town was clean," says Moncef Ben Ayadi, a 52-year-old carpenter who lives in Nezla, close to the plant.

But "since the company arrived, Gabes has become a victim city".

Residents blame it for a long list of woes: chronic fatigue, breathing problems, pollution of the water and soil, and destruction of biodiversity.

Many are sure that pollution from the factory is the cause of a local surge in cancer cases, a claim the government rejects.

"According to studies carried out by the health ministry, there is no causal relationship between illnesses such as cancer and asthma and the pollution caused by the chemical plant," the governor of Gabes, Mongi Thameur, said.

But many residents are sceptical.

Sabeh Moumen, 47, a local restaurateur, is convinced her asthma was caused by the pollution.

Still mourning her brother's death from cancer three months ago, Sabeh says that in Gabes, "we no longer have any hope of living in a clean environment or eating anything healthy".

The Gulf of Gabes is an important spawning ground for Mediterranean fish.

But phosphate mining and processing, industries that are important for Tunisia's economy, have left it heavily polluted.

- Ending the silence -

The question was long off limits for discussion.

Under the dictatorship of veteran president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, "it was forbidden to talk of environmental crimes committed by the complex, on the pretext that it was a source of national wealth," says Kheireddine Debaya, 32, an activist with "Stop Pollution", a local campaign group.

But since Ben Ali's overthrow in a 2011 revolution that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings, the silence has been broken.

Campaigners have organised protests and demanded the complex be relocated.

They have protested by setting up tents in front of an entrance to the complex.

"The situation is catastrophic," says Khaled Hassanet, 24, who is taking part in a sit-in outside the building.

"The state has prioritised its economic interests to the detriment of people's health," he adds, as thick white smoke billows from the production units.

The authorities say they are taking steps to address the issue.

In late June, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed said the complex would be gradually dismantled and replaced by a "new industrial zone conforming to international (environmental) standards".

The project is expected to cost between $1.4 and $1.6 billion and take at least eight years.

The location of the new site is to be decided by December.

"With this project, the Gulf of Gabes and its beaches, including Chott Essalem, will be liberated," Thameur says, adding that it could attract tourists in the future.

But activists have their doubts.

"There are no guarantees," Debaya says.

"For years, there have been decisions and promises, but they've never been carried through."

 

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