Sat, May 17, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Toxic trash blights Tunisia

Waste dumped at landfill sites represents a growing threat to poor communities in Tunisia, polluting air and water supplies

By Simon Speakman Cordall  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Constance Chou

Salah Darghouth’s frustration is visible.

“You see that guy working on the ninth floor?” says the adviser to Tunisia’s sustainable development ministry, pointing at a laborer on the half-built tower block opposite. “He harasses me. Every day, I watch him and all the others throw their refuse onto the street below — concrete, litter, everything.”

Across Tunisia, with the dust of revolution beginning to settle, refuse looms large in the public conversation. Litter, especially plastic bags, has come to dominate the country’s famously dramatic landscape. The problem is felt by all citizens, but none experience it more acutely than those living next to the straining landfill sites.

Ridha Trabelsi, 45, a shopkeeper who lives in the small Tunis suburb of el-Attar, is a case in point.

“Would you like to live here?” he asks, gesturing toward nearby Jbel Borj Chakir, Tunisia’s largest landfill and a source of growing exasperation. “They said they were going to close it last year, but they haven’t. It’s still here and it’s only getting bigger.”

The impact of landfills on such areas is difficult to overstate. In 2011, after what Tunisians and media called the Jasmine Revolution, it was the landfill sites at Djerba, Enkhila (near Nabeul), Oued Laya (near Sousse), Agareb (near Sfax), and the country’s only hazardous waste-treatment plant, at Jradou, that bore the brunt of residents’ fury.

All were closed, most of them temporarily, as a result of violence. Jradou remains shut and it is unclear where its waste is being treated. Plans to reopen the Djerba site have triggered more violence.

In el-Attar, the stench of garbage chokes the air; it sticks in your throat and permeates your clothing. Trabelsi’s son, eight-year-old Mohamed, is asthmatic. Respiratory illness is rife.

“When you build a landfill, you build it for a specific period,” says Morched Garbouj, an environmental engineer and president of the SOS BIAA environmental group. “Here at Jbel Borj Chakir, that period ended in 2013. At that point, it should either have been closed or, at the least, operating at around 10 percent to 20 percent capacity.”

Darghouth said no decision has been taken on the long-term future of Jbel Borj Chakir.

“We’re taking delivery of about 2,000 tonnes of waste every day. That has to go somewhere. We’re just dealing with everything on a day-to-day basis while we work to implement a larger strategy,” he says.

“One of the problems here is that we don’t know what kind of waste we’re dealing with,” Garbouj says. “Elsewhere, waste is separated; here it all gets dumped together: chemical, industrial, household and medical.”

Residents and those who make their living scavenging the dump have reported finding blood bags and fetuses in the garbage at Jbel Borj Chakir, a claim denied by Agence Nationale de Gestion des Dechets, which manages waste on behalf of the environment ministry.

“I didn’t just see them [the different types of waste], I handled them,” former refuse worker Kamel Marouani says. “Chemical, medical, everything.”

“One of the problems with all the different types of waste is the leachate it produces [the liquid produced at the base by the compressed garbage],” Garbouj says. “Leachate is highly toxic, so there are strict controls about how it should be treated and disposed of. However, because no one knows what’s in it, no one knows how it should be treated.”

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