The political decay at the heart of Tunisia's waste crisis

A Tunisian anti-government demonstrator stands in front of a road block during a general strike on November 10, 2021, following the reopening of a rubbish dump, in the Tunisian town of Agareb in the central region of Sfax, which has seen weeks of angry demonstrations over a growing waste crisis.
7 min read
13 December, 2021
In-depth: After months of protests, the government has begun clearing piles of rubbish from Sfax, promising to create a new landfill site. But many say the waste-management crisis epitomises state neglect and corruption.

Driving through the streets of Sfax, in east-central Tunisia, hills of uncollected rubbish have been a common sight over the past few months, with the smell of rotten trash hanging in the air.

Plastic bags of household waste, as well as medical materials such as used bandages, syringes, needles, masks, and gloves, could be found across the city in public areas, including outside hospitals.

Thousands of tonnes of trash have been building up for more than 70 days after the region’s main landfill in the neighbouring town of Agareb, about 22 kilometres away from Sfax, was closed in late September following protests by residents who were angered by the environment ministry’s decision to reopen the El Gonna dump, which they said was full and being used to dump toxic chemical waste.

"In the streets of Sfax, hills of uncollected rubbish have been a common sight over the past few months, with the smell of rotten trash hanging in the air"

Residents of Agareb said that the dump had caused severe diseases such as cancer, respiratory and skin disorders, sight problems, and infertility.  

Renewed demonstrations over waste mismanagement broke out after authorities reopened the landfill last month, taking a violent turn when a protester died after being hit by tear gas fired by police.

The site, which opened in 2018, was supposed to close in December 2021 but had already been overcapacity since September.

The closure of the Agareb facility created a new environmental crisis in nearby Sfax as local municipalities no longer had anywhere to dispose of their trash, leading to the accumulation of rubbish in the streets.

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“Our city has suffered much damage,” Dr Chahir Kammoun, a Sfax resident and specialised medical staff at Habib Bourguiba hospital, told The New Arab. “In the evening, we’ve got used to seeing smoke from burning trash, and in the daytime, there are heavy traffic jams because of the piles of waste around the main hospital,” he added.

“My son has had three asthma attacks, and I’ve had to stop taking walks due to the unbearable stench in the streets,” continued the doctor, who’s one of the coordinators of the citizen movement 'Yezzi Ma Sketna' that is fighting for the rights of the region’s residents to a clean environment.

“The impact has been painful. The hardest part for me has been admitting that we are powerless in the face of an environmental emergency, and unable to explain to my children how we got this point,” Neila Borgi, a resident and lawyer, told The New Arab. She fears that the government does not realise the extent of the problem and how it has affected citizens.

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Renewed demonstrations over waste mismanagement broke out in Sfax last month. [Alessandra Bajec]

To resolve the crisis, the government decided to restart waste collections last Wednesday and create a new dumping site located on the road to Menzel Chaker, some 62 kilometres from the city of Sfax, within five months, as well as to develop a regional plan for recycling and waste recovery within a period of three to five years.

Several tonnes of trash were taken to a temporary gathering point near the port, waiting to be transported to the new dump once it is set up.

These measures were adopted just days ahead of a general strike to avert the mass labour action which had been planned for last Friday by civil society organisations, who brought a lawsuit against the Ministry of Environment, the National Waste Management Agency (ANGED), and the region’s municipalities responsible for the crisis.

The judge ruled in favour of the complainants last Tuesday, ordering the immediate collection of household waste and the establishment of suitable spaces to contain them.

"If we don't resolve the crisis in Sfax, it will spread throughout the country"

Slim Besbes, a resident and attorney who had been tasked by the group of associations with filing the complaint, said that legal action was another recourse available to civil society to defend their right to a healthy environment.

“It’s coming a little too late, and we can’t say that’s going to resolve the problem,” the lawyer told The New Arab, commenting on the government’s intervention. “The waste crisis is a long-existing structural issue,” he highlighted.  

Borgi had similar remarks vis-à-vis the overdue, ineffective measures. “Today, we are not confident that the rubbish removal is going to be carried out continuously, nor that the crisis will be definitely overcome”.

For Dr Kammoun, it is regrettable that the government only stepped in after a general strike had been announced. “It’s a state crime,” the medic said, voicing his frustration that the Tunisian state had turned a blind eye to the crisis for years, allowing waste to be buried in open dumps in the country instead of finding longer-term solutions. 

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“Civil society will remain cautious and vigilant pending the next steps that are expected to follow,” Kammoun vowed.

He pointed out that environmental standards must be respected through all stages, from disposal to recycling, and the required finances and resources must be put in place and incentives provided to the area that will host the new landfill.

Last week, residents of Menzel Chaker addressed a petition to the governor of Sfax in protest against the creation of the newly designated site, and the local municipal council expressed firm opposition to the government’s announced move.

The inhabitants of Sfax have long struggled with pollution and the authorities’ alleged failure to deal with the region’s ongoing accumulation crisis, with responsibility being passed about between ANGED and the local municipalities.

There have also been disagreements between the government and local officials, especially over who should collect hazardous waste from hospitals.

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Rubbish has been piling up on the streets of Sfax. [TNA/Alessandra Bajec]

Besbes noted that the standstill could be explained by the fragmentation and poor division of powers between the state’s central administration, on one hand, and the regional and local administrations, on the other, causing a crisis in decision-making and the allocation of responsibilities.

Zied Mallouli, a professor of engineering and an active member of civil society in Sfax, denounced the delay in removing rubbish, citing the lack of clarity over the responsibilities of the concerned institutions.

“The municipalities said to us from the beginning that the removal operations were not their business,” the environmental activist told The New Arab. “The environment minister clearly told us during her visit to Sfax that there were no immediate solutions to the trash problem in the governorate apart from temporarily transporting the waste to Agareb.”

In discussing the government’s plan to develop a new plot of land as a controlled landfill, Mallouli argued that it is time to break away from the mentality of simply dumping rubbish. “We need to start talking about sorting, treating, and recycling waste,” he said.

Mallouli reiterated that civil society groups are waiting to see commitments from the authorities, otherwise, he anticipates that labour action will be staged in January 2022.

"Citizens don't have trust in institutions. They need to see the state taking action and finding sustainable solutions"

Sofian Boughariou, the head of the bakery chamber at the Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce, and Handicrafts (UTICA), maintained that the real problem lies in the absence of waste systems.

“Tunisia recycles almost nothing. Since its independence, the state has not thought through this question,” the UTICA representative said. “There’s no solution other than sorting and recycling,” he added, alluding to the thorny issue of the widespread use of open-air landfills.

Tunisia has long suffered difficulties handling an estimated 2.5 million tonnes of rubbish produced annually. Over 63% of household waste is organic, and 95% is buried in landfills without being processed, recycled, or burnt, according to ANGED.

Boughariou suggested that Tunisia make use of EU funds for environmental protection to create waste management start-ups and companies, and hire unemployed youths to address the problem.

“Today, citizens don’t have trust in institutions. They need to see the state taking action and finding sustainable solutions,” he asserted. “If we don’t resolve the crisis in Sfax, it will spread throughout the country.”

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec