Protests in the Gabes Governorate continue as local residents demand that nearby chemical companies stop dumping toxic waste into the sea.

Tons of phosphogypsum, a byproduct from the production of phosphate, are discharged into the sea water on a daily basis. Large chemical complexes in Gabes wash the prosphate mined in neighbouring Gafsa Governorate – the process produces the toxic phosphogypsum.

The Tunisian Chemical Complex was established at the beginning of the 1990s on Gabes’ coasts, despite its vicinity to the city center. The establishment of the chemical complex encouraged private sector entities to build more chemical factories in the area and establish a huge industrial city composed of 26 factories.

Most of the companies dispose of the toxic chemical phosphogypsum through a drain into the open sea, which has given rise to an environmental disaster. It has led to the death of fish and turtles, health hazards in the local community and the disruption of fishing, a key local economy.

Marine diversity destroyed

The official figures issued by the chemical complex’s administration show that the factories dump about 29 tons of phosphogypsum into the sea every day, via a purpose-built valley that links the factories with the sea water. A high-pressure pump was installed to stop the phosphogypsum from piling up in the valley.

The radioactive phosphogypsum has spread across hundreds of meters of sea, reaching areas used by the fishing community and tourists.

According to local fishermen, before the chemical factories arrived the marina hosted more than 250 sea species. That number has now fallen to less than 10, according to the Department of Maritime Fishing and Field Monitoring of Sailors.

Death of fishing

“Most of my fellow fishermen abandoned the profession after they lost their livelihoods and were forced to sell their boats,” Jailani Ghol, who still tries to fish what he can, told Correspondents. “Before we were 2,500 fishermen. Now we are reduced to scores,” added Ghol.

The fisherman says pollution has “assassinated” the fish while the sand and pavements are covered with phosphogypsum. The white substance kills sea weed, which in turn created a safe breeding ground for all kinds of reptile and fish specimen from across the world.

“Thirty years ago, we were making huge profits all year long and our nets were barely able to carry the fish we catch,”adds Rida Ghodi, another fisherman, during Correspondents‘ recent trip to Gabes. Our sea acted as an incubator for all kinds of fish,” he added.

Skin diseases

The fishermen say that they are now forced to fish in the neighboring cities or hundreds of kilometers from Gabes’ coasts to avoid the toxic waters. They say the often spot huge quantities of dead fish and rare turtles near the coasts facing the chemical factories.

The repercussions of the polluted sea in Gabes are not limited to sea animals. Most of the sailors working in the area have developed new skin diseases.

The Environmental Protection Department at the Ministry of Health has issued warnings to the people of Gabes against swimming in the Ghannoush and Sidi Abdulsalam beaches facing the chemical factories and the phosphogypsum drain.

Gabes’ beaches were featured on a list of Tunisia’s most dangerous beaches based on scientific studies conducted by the ministry over six months.

Warnings ignored

Mas’oud Shanit, an official from the Environment Protection Department at the Ministry of Health, stresses that he did officially inform the municipality that the sea water in these areas has been proven to be toxic. Shanit says he asked for signboards to be erected to warn people against swimming and to explain how bathing could lead to skin cancer.

One doesn’t need scientific research however to see that the water in Gabes is polluted. The naked eye can see the surface is covered with a layer of black soot upon which float thousands of small cells.

Maher Zaidi, an industrial chemistry engineer, says that these cells are formulated once the phosphogypsum is thrown into the water before continuing to the sea depths.

He adds that in 2013-2014, international organizations and government entities conducted field studies to determine the extent of the sea pollution in Gabes. Samples from six areas on the coast facing the chemical factories returned abnormally high pollution levels.

Epidemic spreading

The test results shocked stakeholders. Water taken from Lake Boughrara in the Medenine Governorate – over 50 kilometers away from the phosphogypsum drains – was tested and also found to contain traces of the toxic substance.

The phosphogypsum reached the lake and Djerba Island due to the influence of sea currents during the ebb and flow,” Zaidi told Correspondents. “This is confirmed by studies conducted by the National Institute for Marine Technology which looked for scientific and logical explanations for the decreasing fish production even in areas beyond the Gulf of Gabes,” he explained.

Ben Ali, the former Tunisian dictator who was toppled in 2011, banned any kind of research on the sea pollution caused by the chemical industries at Gabes’ chemical complex. Local authorities have however been trying for years to find solutions to the negative impacts and to respond to residents’ demands to close the phosphogypsum drain.

New dumping site

A technical manager at the chemical complex, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says that the administration is currently working on transferring tons of phosphogypsum to Oudhref to dump underground. The administration reportedly has conducted a study proving that this measure is not harmful to underground aquifers and is not prone to leaks.

Oudhref’s population rejected this solution, fearing negative implications for local health and agriculture.