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Pollution in Gabes, Tunisia's shore of death

Native species are dying, illness is commonplace, and the people of this Tunisian coastal town are demanding a change.

Last Modified: 14 Jun 2013 19:12
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Residents in Gabes claim a local refinery is taking advantage of a weakened national government to dump unprecedented amounts of toxic waste into the Mediterranean Sea [Samuel McNeil/Al Jazeera]

Gabes, Tunisia -Al-sha’b yureed al-bi’a esselima," or "The people want a clean environment," the protesters chanted as they marched around this city, the most polluted and cancerous in Tunisia, perched halfway between Tunis and the Libyan border. Adapting the Arab Spring slogan invented in Tunisia to local environmental justice, they shouted: "At-tlawath, degage," or "pollution, get out".

Their signs in Arabic, French and English revolve around the ecological catastrophe their community has faced over the past 40 years: rising infertility, common miscarriages, habitat destruction - and deaths. Two children, a brother and a sister, fell ill and died last month, victims, their family believes, of the 13,000 tonnes of industrial pollution reportedly released into the Gulf of Gabes every year.

When the eyes of his five-year-old daughter turned reddish-yellow and her urine became dark, Nabil al-Cherif brought Arwa to a small clinic. He thought she had abu suffeer, hepatitis A, but normal treatment didn't work. After 15 days, worried, Cherif took her to a nearby emergency room, where doctors told him Arwa's affliction could spread to other patients: she must leave. Doctors told the father the same thing in Gabes, and then in Sfax, a large city 140 kilometres to the north.

"The doctors kept trying, but her liver wasn't responding to any treatment," Cherif told Labes, a popular Tunisian television program. "And then she died."

Doctors refused to give him Arwa's medical file, Cherif said, because it would likely imply pollution was to blame. Yet the very next day, May 12, his eleven-year-old son Dhia became sick. Cherif rushed him to straight to the main hospital in Sfax.

"Same symptoms: yellow eyes, yellow urine, yellow stool. Hepatitis A," he said. Unable to treat him, doctors took Dhia to the military hospital in Tunis. As with Arwa, and despite help from politicians, the hospital staff and French doctors, Cherif watched another of his children pass away.

The grieving family believes one entity is responsible for their children's deaths: the Tunisian Chemical Group.

The state-run company said they were "too busy" to give Al Jazeera a statement, and has yet to speak to any media following the deaths of Arwa and Dhia. The most recent interview the chemical concern gave, on April 27 to La Presse, focused on labour politics; it has granted only a handful of interviews this century, and its website hasn't been updated for 15 years.

After their deaths, the children's community erupted in protest - police used tear gas to quell the uproar in their befouled neighborhood of Chott Esselam, just south of a large refinery complex on the edge of the Gulf of Gabes.

"Stop killing the Gabesien people," read a 30m sign carried by an ultras crew from Gabes. Some wore surgical masks, while others held signs decrying environmental crimes, mysterious illnesses, radiation, and businesses that kill animals and people.

"We can't breathe fresh air," said Nada A'muri, a 20-year-old local engineering student, wearing a t-shirt of a gas mask and the protest's main slogan: "Nuheb na’ysh" - "We want to live." While visitors complain of nausea and stomach cramps, A'muri remains exhausted from constantly inhaling the pollution, she said, even after sleeping twelve hours. Gabes was once famous for fish, but now, A'muri said: "We must stop eating fish because of the pollution."

Business and the oasis

Gabes has seen several environmental protests
[Samuel McNeil/Al Jazeera]

In the early 1970s, the Tunisian Chemical Group started building a phosphate-refining complex north of Gabes to make and export fertilizers and preservatives. Trains delivered raw phosphate, mined from towns such as Gafsa and Rhedheyef in Tunisia's interior, to be processed and then loaded onto ships bound for global markets - Europe primarily, of fifty countries, according to a 2012 University of Sfax research report.

Expansion was rapid. Business was, and is, good - despite revolutionary tumult.

With an area slightly larger than England, Tunisia is the fifth largest phosphate exporter in the world, according to the African Economic Outlook, an African Development Bank and United Nations partnership. The bright yellow ore accounts for 25 percent of Tunisia's economy, just behind agriculture and tourism. At an average of $175 a tonne, Tunisia exported roughly 5.8 billion tonnes of phosphate last year, according to data from the National Institute of Statistics, earning $1 billion.

The revolutionary spirit unleashed by Mohammad Bouazizi's sacrifice ignited protests against the industry, known for brutal enforcement and unsafe working conditions. Workers targeted the phosphate supply chain: striking miners halted production in many mines in the south, with some seizing equipment and shutting off the flow of water. They successfully demanded the mines hire three times as many people in 2011, increasing staff to 27,000. But during this time of relatively weak, or at least not ruthless, national authority, it's not just workers who are taking matters into their own hands.

Since the 2010-11 revolution, the seaside refinery in Gabes has ramped up production - with disastrous consequences for local communities and ecosystems.

The phosphogypsum waste from the wet-acid refining process is radioactive, containing uranium and radium. Meanwhile, the Gulf of Gabes sees deformed spines in fish and lowered passerine birds' breeding performance. Rumours persist among Gabsienes of lower fertility rates of people, too. A 2011 marine study found the gulf contained "omnipresent contamination" of sewage effluent, crude oil, fuel, and lubricants. While Ben Ali wasn't good, many grumbled at the Gabes protest, neither was what followed.

"Now it's much worse," said 35-year-old Akram Chekaoui, of the Association to Save the City and Oases of Gabes. "They've tested the soil and have found levels of radiation four times worse now than during the former dictatorship.

"My family moved to Chott Esselam in the 1950s because it was beautiful," said Chekaoui. His father loved the pristine beach full of birds and even sea turtles - now Chekaoui has photographed countless bird and turtle carcasses strewn across a beach blackened by chemicals dumped from the refineries. "Acid gets inside the turtles from the sea."

The United Nations' World Heritage Convention recognises the Gabes oasis as a heritage site. Home to many bird species and 45 different kinds of date palms connected to a complex indigenous irrigation system, the oasis seems, however, doomed to a toxic obituary. Interrelated factors including climate change, overabstraction, and overfishing mix with the pollution to endanger the local ecosystem.

Today, locals call the beach called Chott al-Mout, "The Death Shore". Its oppressive stench, like burnt refuse, overwhelms all other senses. Smokestacks stream white, as a creek washes thick chunks of dark mounds down to the Mediterranean Sea. The surf is foamy brown, dark muck marks the high tide, and the air leaves behind a slimy film.

"When I come back to Gabes, I feel like I'm going to hell," said Asma Dardoori, a 23-year old Gabesiene now studying journalism in Tunis.

At the protest, Mohammed Abdulhamad carried x-rays and medical bills copies. The 55-year-old has a long story of struggling with industrial pollution. Desperate to get healthy, with just a teacher's modest salary, Abdulhamad pursued traditional medicine including camels' urine, fennel seeds, and being administered bee stings regularly. "I've been sick for three years straight, but I'll get better, God willing," he said.

Uprooting the new normal

On the day of the protest, the breeze was gentle and cool in Arwa and Dhia's neighborhood of Chott Esselam, just south of the smokestacks and harbour of the industrial complex. The surf grumbled in the distance as palm trees hushed in the wind. But for the stench, the scene was bucolic North African Mediterranean.

On a dirt road in Chott Esselam leading to the refineries, 24-year-old Karim Bettouhami said that people recognise Hepatitis A easily when victim's eyes turn reddish-yellow. Other diseases are more cryptic. "One guy died from a swelling in his body," he said. "It was like somebody pumped air into him."

Today's oppressive odour, however, was relatively mild, he said.

"Now is a’di, normal, but when they release the yellow gas, then you'd get really sick," Bettouhami said, referring to ammonia and phosphorous vents. Without strong regulation of the central government in Tunis, he said the company emits toxic gas around the clock, instead of at times residents are relatively safe in their homes.

"Before the revolution they released the yellow gas only at night, like at two or three in the morning," he said. "But after the revolution, they release it whenever the pressure builds.

"We got so used to it, that when we leave for a few days, we get sick."

After briefly stopping in front of the offices of the Tunisian Chemical Group, the protesters ended near the northern beach of Gabes at a festival. Local rappers took the stage as different booths offered pollution information, popcorn, photographs of putrid or mutated animals, samples of clean and polluted soil, and contact registers. With a history of political organising, many here see this struggle as a generational fight.

"Yes, we will die, but we will uproot the pollution from our earth," read a sign held by Saed A’dudi. The 20-year-old business student with sunglasses and a surgical mask had changes the lyrics from a poem by Na'im Bseesu, replacing the word "oppression" with attalawath or "pollution" - other variations of the poem mention Tunisia's ruling party, Ennahdha.

Another Gabes resident carried a sign in English: "We have the right to breathe. We have the right to live in a healthy environment. We want the old paradise back."

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Al Jazeera
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