Along the Gulf of Tunisia, domestic and industrial waste is being dumped into the sea, rendering stretches of the coast "unusable".
In a cafeteria Samir Sdiri is insistent. “There are almost no fish left. If you open their guts, you can see that the inside is black. " Lobna Ben Ali Bouazza nods his head. “When I was a kid, my parents let us play on the beach all day, swimming in the sea, everything. These used to be the best beaches around. Now I am taking my children elsewhere ”.
Outside the cafeteria, residents of La Goulette, a small fishing suburb in northern Tunisia, go about their business. It is the first days of June and the beaches are relatively empty. Some couples drift across the sand, while overturned fishing boats lie idle in the midday sun. These beaches will be unrecognizable in the summer, as families from all over Greater Tunisia, seeking to escape the high temperatures, take the shuttle train across the lake from the capital, past the industrial ports of Rades and go to the beaches, where their dispersal camps gather for space on the crowded sands.
It is not only the waters of La Goulette that are causing concern. The entire Gulf of Tunisia is drawing the ire of activists, as the domestic and industrial waste of the capital's more than 600,000 residents, as well as flows from the ports and industrial estates that line the gulf, seep into the waters outside of Tunisia, impacting fish populations and posing a clear danger to human health.
Tunisia's pollution problems are not new. Its heavy industries have been affecting water quality for years. However, since the revolution of 2011, the conversation about the environmental impact of its industrial legacy has at least become possible, even if the kind of investment activists are calling for is still far off.
Officially, around a quarter of Tunisia's wastewater is recycled, with the aim, among other things, of irrigating the country's agricultural land. The rest (around 247m cubic meters per year), is expelled from the country's treatment plants directly to the sea and to the waterways. According to environmental regulations, industrial wastewater must be initially treated at the source, before being transferred for further treatment. However, activists question how rigorously this is being applied.
There are three large water treatment plants serving the population around the Gulf of Tunis, in Raoued, in the northwest of the gulf, Rades, near La Goulette on the western side, and Souliman, in the industrialized southern end of the gulf .
All are operated by Onas (L’Office National de l’Assainissement), a subdivision of the ministry of environment and sustainable development and, according to activists, heavily subsidized by loans from international organizations.
"It's crazy," Morched Garbouj, chairman of the environmental lobby group SOS BIAA, told The Guardian. "We tested the water going into these treatment plants and we tested it going out and, I can tell you, there is very little difference."
Throughout Tunisia, industrial and domestic wastewater is channeled from wide areas to large treatment plants. Within the Gulf, the results are clear. "We tested the inflows and outflows between 2016 and 2017 and the results were consistent," says Garbouj, an environmental engineer. “We found elevated levels of nitrates, manganese particles, phosphate plus fecal coliforms and streptococci, both present within human waste, among other things. All of these are harmful to health.
"The government has disputed these findings, but they have not shared their methodology with us, so it is difficult to say how credible those denials are."
“The wastewater treatment in Tunisia is totally centralized. Everything goes through Onas, including development loans from the World Bank, the EU and the German Development Bank, for example. We have brought our findings to them. They are aware of what is happening. They know it is not working. They just aren't interested. "
“It seems that nobody cares how well the treatment plants are working. Onas, who runs the plants, is a subdivision of the Ministry of the Environment, and do you know who is responsible for testing their effectiveness? The environment ministry, ”says Garbouj.
Wafa Hmadi, coordinator of the program with the environmental group RAJ Tunisie, is equally damning: "It's not just the Gulf of Tunisia," she tells The Guardian. She says that around the industrial city of Sfax and Gabes, near the Gafsa phosphate mining basin, all stretches of the coastline were "unusable."
“Many of Tunisia's inland waterways are also affected by heavy industry, such as paper manufacturing. Pollutants from the industry go out into the local environment, impacting local populations, before going out to sea. Fish, particularly larger fish, are dying. Some areas are totally dead ”.
“There really is almost no monitoring. "Industrial polluters can expel their waste largely untreated, since there are no inspections and no one holds them accountable," she says.
Little of this is news to Lobna and Samir. They and their families have been living with the result of increased water pollution for years. Yet in a country battling entrenched unemployment and desperate to fight a rising cost of living, both are equally aware of the desperate need for industry and jobs.
However, for a city built by the sea, change occurs slowly. Outside the café, along the sun-drenched shoreline, children swim in the cloudy waters, or splash down the walls of the ancient canals of La Goulette, as they have done for years. “People come here. They always will, ”Lobna says.
The Tunisian environment ministry has not responded to requests for comment.
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