Breathing Pollution in Tunisia
By Mounira Rabai
Tunis, Tunisia, Oct. 19,2016 (TAP) – Zenobia Al-Jouyani can barely catch her breath as she talks of the heavy darkness hanging over her life for the last seven yearsin the Beja Governorate’s municipality of Téboursouk.
She speaks of the terrible odours and mosquito bites that have spread from an estuary thanks to the dumping of olive wastewater.
Zenobia says that her life has become “an unbearable hell” since six olive presses were established in the area surrounding her home.
“All four of my sons have gone away but I have stayed. Because I stayed here I suffer from this pollution, which is barely 50 feet from my home at any given time.”
Zenobia has filed five separate complaints since the estuary was established in 2010, both to the local Téboursouk officials as well as Beja Governorate officials. Both sets of officials rejected her complaints, citing that she was residing on land that has been turned into state property. As a result, she was told to either accept the situation or to vacate her family home that she had inherited from her father and has spent her savings to renovate.
“I have developed allergies as result of the pollution, and my house now reeks with the smell of this black liquid. I’ve become fed up with them and it’s become a matter of personal limits in the summer, when the smells are especially bad and the mosquitoes multiply so much that I must keep my windows closed at all times. I would rather suffer the high heat than that smell.”
Zenobia’s story is the story of two hundred families in the village of Fedan Al-Souk, located 100 km northwest of the capital and known for its olive tree plantations. There, the residents have been afflicted with deformations and defects as a result of the pollution.
This investigation uncovers the weak oversight by both the Ministry of the Environment and the National Agency for Ocean Protection (NAOP). This has allowed for the pollution caused by these private citizens to spread, flouting proper disposal regulations and acting against the laws of Tunis itself while Tunisians themselves are left to suffer.
“Our Voices Go Unheard”
Like Zenobia, other residents interviewed spoke of the same trapped lifestyle, being forced to shutter their homes in sweltering summers to keep out bad smells and the proliferation of mosquitoes. They also stressed the negative impact of the waste on nearby agriculture as well as on their daily lives.
School principal Ayn Bin-Shibil said that the polluted estuary was only 200 meters away from his facilities and 300 meters from the neighborhood, both of which are violations of the law. But still his students suffer the foul odors and are inconvenienced during their class hours.
The odours are worst during the outside PE classes.
Ayn added that it was notrandom that the estuary had been chosen for runoff, as it had not been followed up on or monitored since its start and that regional authorities had replicated the estuary by drilling pools elsewhere in the area, destroying farmlands as a result.
In addition, three separate complaints he had filed through the regional education boards asking for an intervention to close or move it away from the school had been ignored since 2013.
Upon further investigation it was discovered that the Fedan Al-Souk estuary was unlicensed. Speaking to regional official Rada Al-Nafzi, it was noted that this particular estuary in Téboursouk had been created as a “temporary solution” for olive processors in order to reduce the indiscriminate dumping across streams and valleys in the governorate.
Research elsewhere led to the city of Monastirin the Governate of Bani Hassan, just 187 kilometers from the capital. Since 2006a local sports association “Lightning Sports” has suffered from pollution and runoff only 100 meters from their municipal stadium, feeding fans and guests with the unpleasant odours all year long.
Caused by over a dozen basins stretching across a nearby estuary, it had been built by a mill owner without the approval of local officials. According to the head of Bani Hassan’s Environmental and Developmental Association Ramadan Kashfat, this estuary had caused significant soil erosion and environmental damage.As a result a decision was made in 2014 to have the estuary cleared out and shut down, though by the time this investigation was compiled several basins had not been drained.
Disposal, Production & Response
A significant imbalance exists between Tunis’s olive oil production capacity and their ability to dispose of the wastewater. Beja and Monastir, the main olive-producing areas in Tunis, are estimated to contain 1.76 million hectares of olive trees. These hectares contain 74 million olive trees.
Between 2009 and 2014, Tunis produced 782 thousand tons of olives. At the same time however, the country produces between 800 and 1,300 tons of wastewater each year through as much as 1,850 olive presses, mostly in the central and southern regions of the country.
Only 15% of the country’s 116 disposal sites and estuaries meeting the Ministry of the Environment’s standards following a study released in 2013. The remaining 85% pose various environmental risks, including pollution into the open sea, contamination of groundwater and wells and the destruction of farming lands.
The study confirmed that the closure of each estuary must be accompanied by rehabilitation to eliminate the pollution caused. This would include the dismantling of the equipment from the estuary, removing a layer of wastewater dried from evaporation and removing the top layer of dirt beneath the wastewater as far down as 40 centimeters. This would then need to be replaced by a layer of mud 20 that is centimeters thick, before replanting plants and trees to restore the area fully.
For all this, the total cost would reach1,000,104 Tunisian dinars (or roughly $450,000).
The Experts: This is Poison
Professor Mohammed Al-SaghirQiyad states that the wastewater releases a toxic substance called “phenol”, which has been the cause behind several dermatological and respiratory diseases by way of air and water pollution. He stressed that “most of the problem came about because of a lack of understanding as how to dispose of the waste, and also without taking into account the interests of the citizens or the environment.”
Doctor Abdul-Jameed Al-Jamaah of Tunis’s University of Medicine also noted the smell of phenol “causes anxiety, and has a very negative impact on the environment by eliminating the small bacteria that feed the soil surface turning the land barren as a result.”
Elsewhere, Doctor Kamal Saleem of the Faculty of Science at the University of Lebanon released a study in 2013 that concluded that the olive waste was a source of contamination of surface and ground water and that it would provide a favorable environment for the growth of algae that would in turn disrupt the ecological balance of natural water systems and deprive both animal and plant life of necessary oxygen.
Estuaries Under the Law
The faulty disposals are contrary to Tunisian laws and regulations, which expect disposal sites to be prepared in a way to prevent environmental or health risks to surrounding areas or relatively near residents. For those sites that do not follow the regulations, fines have been levied. The fines typically range between 100 and 50,000 Tunisian dinars depending on the damage. They are seen as an amicable resolution to the problem according to Tunis’s Director of Environmental Studies BakarTarmeez.
However irregularities and issues with these disposal sites are common in Tunisia, with a lack of care as to the depth of the estuaries, proper fencing off of the site or insulation. This magnifies the risks when site-owners choose to illegally set up near residential areas.
Other problems include a lack of oversight or transportation, which has stymied the national agencies responsible for monitoring and recording the operations of these estuaries. This in turn has allowed some site owners to dump their waste at random in the countryside, though the number has decreased from 71 violations in 2010 to 14 in 2015.
However, Director Bakar Tarmeez stated that only nine complaints had been registered across the country in the first half of 2016 and that the new estuary had solved a major decades-long disposal problem in the area, where before the waste had been disposed of in valleys and agricultural lands.
The Director of Environmental Studies went on further stating that “The State wishes the least possible number of estuaries regardless of precautions because they are environmentally speaking “black spots”. But beyond consulting on the possibility of recycling the waste for farming or cosmetics there is little else that can be done”.
Tarmeez also stressed that the Tunisian government does not directly control the estuary but rather entrusts it to the owner of the olive press mills, being the source of the pollution themselves. He continued on to say that in constructing the estuary multiple steps are undertaken to ensure safety and security.
The steps include consultations with experts regarding the direct and indirect effects of the estuary on nearby water sources as well as the ocean, before next receiving approval from the oversight agency. After that, it awaits approval from the regional committees responsible for construction in each province in the country before it can begin the actual work.
Under the current system, the estuary owner research responsibilities leave them liable for compensation for clean-up efforts. Any estuary or olive press owners who do not adhere to standards have their license revoked, according to Tarmeezwho confirmed three such licenses being pulled at his recommendation. He insists that regional governors have taken action to close the related presses.
An Unaware Administration
In upholding the right of reply, this investigative reporter spoke with the Ministry of the Environment’s Director of Hazard Protection Abdul Razzaq Marzouki. Director Marzouki denied any knowledge of the problem at Fedan Al-Souk and dismissed various observations provided to him before promising to investigate the claim of an estuary being located in a residential area.
He also stressed that the surveillance for offendersis entrusted in the National Agency for Environmental Protection. He added that his administration had not received any reports that would notify them of Fedan’s problems.
While waiting for Marzouki’spromise to be realised, Zenobia and other residents can only wait for relief from their ordeals and hope that the Tunisian government will carry out its responsibilities by curbing the indiscriminate disposal of olive waste, especially as the harvesting season approaches.
This investigation was completed with support from the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) – www.arij.net and coached by Dr. Mark Hunter and Bahijah Belmabrouk.