The phosphate-rich mining basin region in the southern Gafsa Governorate suffers repeated drinking water shortages and is currently facing the worst thirst problem in the country’s history.
Noura places plastic containers in front of her house in Redeyef, in anticipation of the water tankers that will roll through the streets of this Mining Basin region to sell water to the city’s residents.
“I fill my white containers for the black days,” Noura says of her 20-liter water containers, which she uses when the tap water is cut off. Most of the residents in her market neighborhood also store water as their area experiences the most severe water outages in Gafsa governorate, which has the most polluted drinking water problem in Tunisia. Families here buy large tanks, each costing USD 20 to fill.
Experts warn against a wave of a dry season and thirst in the coming years, particularly in the central and southern areas, as a consequence of scanty rainfall and declining dam water levels, coupled with rising water consumption standards.
Civil society activist Ghanim al-Sharayti claims the Gafsa Phosphate Company that invests in the Mining Basin region in Gafsa governorate is responsible for the depletion of region’s water resource.
Al-Sharayti explains that the company uses large quantities of potable water for phosphate washing, taking away water from residents. He blames the government for not preventing such practices.
Rabeh bin Othman, member of Gafsa’s branch of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, says the damage caused by Gafsa’s Phosphate Company is not confined to the depletion of water for phosphate washing purposes. “The state-owned company disposes of waste water near the ground water wells, polluting these wells and contaminating the water used for drinking and irrigation.”
Civil society activist, Ali Kraymi, warns: “The Mining Basin population is not only threatened with thirst, but is also faced with the hazards of widespread diseases caused by the polluted water.”
He adds that the Gafsa Phosphate Company discharges the phosphate washing water into areas close to the ground water as well, polluting it with poisonous substances.
Head of Environment Awareness Society, Hosni Balnour, tells Correspondents that medical studies found between six and seven cancer fatalities in the region, in addition to tuberculosis, kidney and urological cases.
According to these studies, most of these fatalities are caused by the pollution originating in the phosphate plants, including air pollution or water contamination.
The Tunisian health ministry has recently warned against the spread of viral hepatitis after dozens of people were infected, especially in southern Tunisia.
Cries for help
Due to the repeated water cuts, especially in the summer, the residents of the phosphate-rich Mining Basin have angrily called the authorities to deal with the water shortages and thirst.
Other Mining Basin areas like al-Mudhilah and Om Al-Ara’es, which have similar shares of natural phosphate, are all affected by water shortages.
Young Anis from Al-Mudhilah, in Gafsa governorate, sends distress signals to the authorities via social media, and organizes, along with other activists, protest demonstrations and field movements in that region.
He says that Al-Mudhilah town is experiencing thirst due to the continued water outages amid very hot weather. He warned of a state of turmoil among the youth who block roads and prevent the movement of phosphate trucks.
The Mining Basin’s Al-Mudhilah district has recently been a scene of mass protests in which protesters blocked phosphate truck roads, causing material damage to Gafsa Phosphate Company.
Among the protesters was Abdul Salam, who, along with his friends, leads large-scale demonstrations against the Gafsa Phosphate Company because of the water cuts in an area in which there is a marked temperature increase.
“Don’t we have the right as mine workers to protest our people’s and children’s suffering from thirst?” he said. Abdul Salam has already been suspended from work for three days and legal action was taken against him for his alleged disruption of the company’s activities.
Amid these protests, the Tunisian Water Monitoring Agency (non-government body) warned against what it termed as “thirst uprising” given the escalated popular protests in the southern Mining Basin region.