In Ghannouche village in the Gulf of Gabes in the Mediterranean Sea, Elshatawi Aliya and his fellow fishermen head out to the sea in their small boat hoping to earn their meager living. Their journey extends dozens of kilometers offshore due to the scarcity of fish in the gulf. On that day, like any other, they caught only a few fish after more than five hours at sea – 18 kilograms of small-sized fish whose revenues would be distributed among five households.

In Ghannouche village in the Gulf of Gabes in the Mediterranean Sea, Elshatawi Aliya and his fellow fishermen head out to the sea in their small boat hoping to earn their meager living. Their journey extends dozens of kilometers offshore due to the scarcity of fish in the gulf. On that day, like any other, they caught only a few fish after more than five hours at sea – 18 kilograms of small-sized fish whose revenues would be distributed among five households.

Fisherman Salem Algodi said he earned 4 dinars per kilogram (less than $2), which is not enough to cover his daily expenses (gasoline, boat maintenance etc.) or support his family.

Elshatawi, who has been in this profession for over 40 years and supervises the work of this group of fishermen, said Gabes province used to be a prominent exporter of mollusca and many other fish species to other Tunisian regions before the establishment of Tunisian Chemical Group (TCG).

He says TCG discharge of phosphogypsum in the sea damaged the marine life in the gulf, which has affected the fishing profession. The number of fishermen in the Gulf of Gabes declined dramatically from 5,000 thirty years ago to currently only dozens,  as they were forced to seek other professions in fields such as agriculture, according to Elshatawi.

TCG’s establishment

“In the beginning, the Gabes population welcomed the establishment of the Tunisian Chemical Group in the late 1990s,” said Elshatawi. “TCG created jobs in Gabes and the neighboring cities especially with the high salaries they offered at the time. Unfortunately, we were not aware of the environmental impact of the chemical discharge and it took us seven years to realize that the released phosphogypsum was destroying the seaweed that attracts marine life in the Gulf of Gabes.”

However, due to Ben Ali’s repressive regime, the city dwellers could not speak out against the impact of pollution on their interests and health. Numerous bloggers and human rights activists, prior to the January 2011 revolution, were repeatedly arrested and assaulted for publishing a photo on the Internet exposing the polluted seawater.

TCG was established in 1972 on the banks of Gabes beach between Chott Esselam and Ghannouche, dangerously close to the populated residential areas. TCG currently consists of six factories employing nearly 7,500 workers – it plays an important role in providing jobs to a wide category of people, vitalizing the local economy and providing hard currency from export revenues. A few years later, several private sector factories were established, which turned the area into an industrial center with 26 plants.

Phosphogypsum and toxic gases

It is no secret that Gabes city suffers from air pollution due to the chemical plants’ gases. The sea pollution resulting from phosphogypsum discharges is so obvious that floating black residue can be seen by the naked eye. Four years ago, the TCG administration tried to implement the recommendations of a study conducted by experts during the last years of Ben Ali’s reign. The study proposed to stop releasing phosphogypsum in the sea and bury it in ‘Oudhref’ (20 Kilometers away) after being wrapped in plastic bags to prevent leakage to underground water. However, this process was challenged by civil society organizations for fear of land contamination and radiation impact on drinking and irrigation water – TCG then postponed the project.

The TCG administration rarely declares the accurate amounts of discharged phosphogypsum, but official reports confirm that nearly 28,720 tons are dumped into the sea every day, through a valley connecting the plants with seawater with a powerful pump to prevent the accumulation of phosphogypsum in the valley. Phosphogypsum leaks into hundreds of meters in the sea affecting fishing as well as swimming areas.

Last June, the Ministry of Health classified 20 Tunisian beaches as extremely polluted including Chott Esselam and Gabes marine port, adjacent to the TCG and the phosphogypsum estuary. The Head of the Gabes Directorate of Local Hygiene and Environmental Protection, Massoud Shanib said the Ministry of Health officially warned the province municipality against the water pollution in these two areas and advised the installment of warning signs at these beaches to warn citizens against the possibility of catching skin diseases that could develop into cancer.

This year, the Ministry of Health managed a network of 517 control points along the coastline to collect samples on a regular basis to assess the shore conditions under a six-category classification system, ranging between very good and very poor. The results revealed that all shores adjacent to the TCG in Gabes are classified as very poor.

With 362.5 kilograms of industrial waste discharged into the Gulf of Gabes, which amounts to 21.75 tons per minute, 1305 tons per hour, and 28720 tons per day, according to the Ministry.

Until 1965, the Gulf of Gabes enjoyed a rich variety of over 250 marine species, which decreased to 50 by 1990 and to currently only six species. Experts and fishermen expect the extinction of all marine life within 10 years due to sand solidification by phosphogypsum.

Environmental repression under dictators

There were no official or non-official studies about pollution in Gabes under both Presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali. However, the changes triggered by the January 2011 revolution encouraged researchers and university students who visited the chemical plants and established mobile and fixed laboratories to study marine pollution without harassment by the security authorities. Since 2014, nevertheless, and after restoring security in the country, activists and researchers lost freedom to conduct their work.

Studies conducted by the National Institute of Marine Science and Technology (INSTM) indicated that samples tested between 2013 and 2014 show extreme levels of phosphogypsum and hydrocarbon pollution in the coastal area of the Gulf of Gabes.

The results of these tests matched other studies conducted by INSTM during the same period in cooperation with the National Engineering School of Tunis to determine the spread of phosphogypsum in the sea. After analyzing several samples in dozens of areas in the sea and on the coast. Results showed that phosphogypsum extended for nearly 60 square kilometers into the sea.

Additionally, pollution by TCG waste has affected Lake Boughrara in Medenine province, 50 km from the Gulf of Gabes. The lake used to enjoy a wide variety of marine life with a production of five tons annually in the early 1990s before declining to one ton annually in the 2000s. INSTM Studies confirmed that the waste drawn by tides from the Gulf of Gabes is the main reason for the deterioration of the lake, in addition to other reasons including fish farming projects.

The high rates of phosphogypsum in the Gulf of Gabes has been confirmed by several foreign laboratories. The governmental and private institutions that conducted these studies warned the Tunisian government against the spread of pollution from the Gulf of Gabes to the nearby coasts, which would aggravate the crisis. Their reports maintained that in recent years, the city of Gabes has become a dangerous industrial waste outlet and they recommended making necessary decisions as soon as possible to preserve the ecosystem.

On the other hand, TCG’s production is affected by the protests in the mining basin cities in Gafsa, with activists preventing trains and trucks from passing into Gabes to deliver phosphate, which comes from the chemical industry after being subjected to refining processes, which result in unneeded phosphogypsum that cannot be used by any other industry and ultimately discharged in the sea.

Searching for solutions

TCG production facilities are under the surveillance and protection of the security and military forces charged with dispersing protests that could disrupt production as well as preventing terrorist attacks. The government decision to promote the economy resulted in obstructing the work of journalists and researchers who were prevented from approaching the phosphogypsum dumps to collect data.

Following the Constituent Assembly elections, the Regional Labor Union asked the current government to oblige the TCG administration to establish a free of charge clinic for the people of Chott Esselam oasis specialized in the early detection of all types of cancers. The Union also called for providing financial compensation and employment opportunities for Chott Esselam inhabitants to redress their losses on in agriculture and fishing.

It is worth mentioning that the right to a healthy and balanced environment has been constitutionalized. The idea was first introduced in the early 1990s and the constitutionalizing calls continued until the last amendment of the 1959 Constitution. The call was renewed upon the constitutional amendment on 01 June 2002 by the Ministry of Environment but the presidency – specifically the Minister of State and Special Advisor to the President – was not willing to constitutionalise this right until passing the new constitution of Tunisia after the revolution.

The Tunisian Revolution has promoted the work of associations by revisiting their bylaws and ending the Ministry of Interior control over the licensing process. This has encouraged the establishment of dozens of environmental associations in Gabes, which according to observers, have not achieved any impact on combating pollution. This failure, according to the head of Chott Esselam Maintenance Association, Nader Shkiwa, is due to the unorganised activities that were confined to protests and scientifically unreasonable demands like moving the industrial units to areas outside the city. This is technically impossible to achieve in a short period of time, according to Nader, who also explained that these associations are unable to work effectively due to the lack of funding needed to establish laboratories and research offices and employing full-time staff.

Experts confirm that it is impossible to entirely eliminate pollution in Gabes within a short period of time, but its reduction is possible on the medium and long term, with the introduction of eco-friendly industries such as textile.