Tunisia waste crisis: Protests demand right to health in face of state neglect

Tunisia's waste crisis is escalating as the government fails to act. With over half the country's landfill sites having reached capacity protests are raging as the overspill of domestic and toxic waste threatens the health of communities.

Expired landfill sites in Tunisia are threatening the health of communities, the environment, and damaging citizens' relationship with the state and local authorities as increasing numbers of local people are refusing to allow their neighbourhoods to be turned into landfill sites. They demand the government introduce waste disposal policies that will safeguard their right to a safe environment.

Due to the mounting opposition to new dumps opening near population centres, tensions are becoming increasingly fraught in several provinces, with local protests demanding the closure of expired landfill sites.

Expired: Tunisia's rubbish dumps

The majority of official rubbish dumps in Tunisia are approaching closure, having reached their maximum capacity. This comes at a time the judiciary has issued many closure orders after local citizens in the areas close to the dumps filed lawsuits.

"Expired landfill sites in Tunisia are threatening the health of communities, the environment, and damaging citizens' relationship with the state"

However, the Ministry of the Environment opposes the closure of the sites because of a lack of alternatives. The government has neglected planning and policy on waste disposal in the country and this has included a failure to develop recycling capabilities, which could have limited site overfill.

No national strategy

Recently, the waste crisis in the Sfax governorate has seen around 30,000 tons of waste piled up in streets as a result of the closure of the Aguereb landfill, mirroring a crisis in official landfill sites across the country. Civil organisations are calling on the government to stop imposing decisions with no popular consent and find radical solutions and alternatives to landfill sites.

Reda Al-Louh, a member of the National Federation of Tunisian Municipalities, said, "The lifespan of 6 out of 11 official dumps has ended, among them dumps that reached capacity in 2013, however, they have remained open to avoid waste piling up in cities."

Tunisian citizens go on strike after a demonstrator died from tear gas inhalation during protests against the reopening of the Aguereb landfill (10 November 2021, Tunis) [Hasan Mrad/Getty Images]

"There is no national strategy to develop recycling capacity in Tunisia, and so far, authorities have dealt with the crisis by expanding the landfills. This just exacerbates the country's predicament, because the sites cannot absorb hundreds of tons of extra waste daily.

"Landfill sites designated for hazardous waste are also full, which is concerning because their continued use even temporarily poses environmental and health risks to citizens living nearby."

Al-Louh indicates that the opening of new dumps or the expansion of old ones is broadly rejected by Tunisians in the areas close by, causing tensions to escalate between the authorities and citizens. He clarifies that the heavy-handed security approach of imposing policies as a 'fait accompli' threatens civil peace, and is not an appropriate solution to the thorny issue.

"There is no national strategy to develop recycling capacity in Tunisia, and so far, authorities have dealt with the crisis by expanding the landfills. This just exacerbates the country's predicament"

Civil society input on waste crisis essential

A spokesperson from the Tunisian Municipal Association's executive office stated that civil society should be involved in future government decisions on the issue. This will ensure decisions are accepted by citizens and avoid provoking anger and protest which have been the public response to the opening and expansion of landfill sites.

Currently, demonstrations are ongoing in response to the reopening of the Qana landfill, which was issued a final closure decision in July 2019. A new decision to reopen and exploit it was passed recently, leading to violent confrontations between security forces and protesters.

In recent years, the country has witnessed repeated unrest of this kind, including the launch of the "Maneche Msabb" campaign ("I'm not a rubbish dump") against the continued expansion of the Borj Chakir dump (the largest dump in the capital) in addition to demonstrations against the dumping of tons of industrial waste off the coasts of Gabes, Sfax and other regions.

Cooperation, not intimidation

In addition, the spokesman for the National Coordinating Body for Social Movements, Abdelhak Basdouri, says that the policy of evasion and intimidation adopted by the authorities will not lead to a solution to the environmental, social and economic problems that the country is going through. Instead, it will lead to more violence and counter-violence.

He explained that "adopting an outdated and failed approach continues as problems pile up, which the Ministry of Environment and state institutions have not found a solution to other than premeditated murder, either by pollution or by tear gas inhalation in public squares.

"The solution to environmental crises cannot be security enforcement. Rather, it should be dealt with through dialogue with citizens and experts, and by using scientific research in waste disposal and recycling. It also needs investment and the law and commitments need to be complied with."

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Official statistics show that Tunisia annually produces more than 2.6 million tons of household waste, which is dumped in 11 official landfills, managed by three private companies. There are no official figures available on the number of unofficial dumps in various regions of the country near residential areas in the depths of the Tunisian suburbs and in the countryside.

Responsible state agencies have not managed to close these or rehabilitate them in line with international standards because of a lack of funding and their rapid proliferation.

On the other hand, the annual volume of toxic waste in Tunisia exceeds 6.5 million tons and is disposed of in various ways in the face of the state’s inability to treat it.

"The solution to environmental crises cannot be security enforcement. Rather, it should be dealt with through dialogue with citizens and competent actors"

Since 2000, 196 licenses for hazardous waste disposal have been granted, of which 86 remain valid. 20 of these licenses (which allow collection and transportation of toxic waste to the industrial waste treatment centre in Jradou) have expired.

The Court of Audit statistics estimate that 142,000 tons of hazardous waste are being dumped in unofficial sites annually, without regard for the environmental damage or the cost of its removal, which is estimated at 670 million Tunisian dinars annually.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko