Tunisian beachside town fights industrial pollution

GABES, Tunisia: Next to a palm grove, a blackish mud flows into the sea. After years of living with industrial pollution, residents of Tunisia’s Gabes are fighting back.
Close to the Chott Essalem beach and in front of a rare coastal oasis, the state-owned Tunisian Chemical Group (GCT) has been processing phosphate since the 1970s.
The authorities say the plant pumps 14,000 tons of phosphogypsum into the sea every day. On top of the toxic mud, the factory also pumps phosphoric acid into the air.
“In the past, our town was clean,” says Moncef Ben Ayadi, a 52-year-old carpenter who lives in Nezla, close to the plant.
But “since the company arrived, Gabes has become a victim city.”
Residents blame it for a long list of woes: chronic fatigue, breathing problems, pollution of the water and soil, and destruction of biodiversity.
Many are sure that pollution from the factory is the cause of a local surge in cancer cases, a claim the government rejects.
“According to studies carried out by the Health Ministry, there is no causal relationship between illnesses such as cancer and asthma and the pollution caused by the chemical plant,” said Mongi Thameur, governor of Gabes.
But many residents are skeptical.
Sabeh Moumen, 47, a local restaurateur, is convinced her asthma was caused by the pollution.
Still mourning her brother’s death from cancer three months ago, Sabeh says that in Gabes, “we no longer have any hope of living in a clean environment or eating anything healthy.”
The Gulf of Gabes is an important spawning ground for Mediterranean fish.
But phosphate mining and processing, industries that are important for Tunisia’s economy, have left it heavily polluted.
The question was long off limits for discussion. But campaigners have organized protests in recent years and demanded the complex be relocated.
They have protested by setting up tents in front of an entrance to the complex.
“The situation is catastrophic,” says Khaled Hassanet, 24, who was taking part in a sit-in outside the building.
“The state has prioritized its economic interests to the detriment of people’s health,” he added, as thick white smoke billowed from the production units.
The authorities say they are taking steps to address the issue.
In late June, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed said the complex would be gradually dismantled and replaced by a “new industrial zone conforming to international (environmental) standards.”
The project is expected to cost between $ 1.4 billion and $ 1.6 billion and take at least eight years.
The location of the new site is to be decided by December.
“With this project, the Gulf of Gabes and its beaches, including Chott Essalem, will be liberated,” Thameur said, adding that it could attract tourists in the future.
But activists have their doubts.
“There are no guarantees,” Debaya says.
“For years, there have been decisions and promises, but they’ve never been carried through.”

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GABES, Tunisia: Next to a palm grove, a blackish mud flows into the sea. After years of living with industrial pollution, residents of Tunisia’s Gabes are fighting back.
Close to the Chott Essalem beach and in front of a rare coastal oasis, the state-owned Tunisian Chemical Group (GCT) has been processing phosphate since the 1970s.
The authorities say the plant pumps 14,000 tons of phosphogypsum into the sea every day. On top of the toxic mud, the factory also pumps phosphoric acid into the air.
“In the past, our town was clean,” says Moncef Ben Ayadi, a 52-year-old carpenter who lives in Nezla, close to the plant.
But “since the company arrived, Gabes has become a victim city.”
Residents blame it for a long list of woes: chronic fatigue, breathing problems, pollution of the water and soil, and destruction of biodiversity.
Many are sure that pollution from the factory is the cause of a local surge in cancer cases, a claim the government rejects.
“According to studies carried out by the Health Ministry, there is no causal relationship between illnesses such as cancer and asthma and the pollution caused by the chemical plant,” said Mongi Thameur, governor of Gabes.
But many residents are skeptical.
Sabeh Moumen, 47, a local restaurateur, is convinced her asthma was caused by the pollution.
Still mourning her brother’s death from cancer three months ago, Sabeh says that in Gabes, “we no longer have any hope of living in a clean environment or eating anything healthy.”
The Gulf of Gabes is an important spawning ground for Mediterranean fish.
But phosphate mining and processing, industries that are important for Tunisia’s economy, have left it heavily polluted.
The question was long off limits for discussion. But campaigners have organized protests in recent years and demanded the complex be relocated.
They have protested by setting up tents in front of an entrance to the complex.
“The situation is catastrophic,” says Khaled Hassanet, 24, who was taking part in a sit-in outside the building.
“The state has prioritized its economic interests to the detriment of people’s health,” he added, as thick white smoke billowed from the production units.
The authorities say they are taking steps to address the issue.
In late June, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed said the complex would be gradually dismantled and replaced by a “new industrial zone conforming to international (environmental) standards.”
The project is expected to cost between $ 1.4 billion and $ 1.6 billion and take at least eight years.
The location of the new site is to be decided by December.
“With this project, the Gulf of Gabes and its beaches, including Chott Essalem, will be liberated,” Thameur said, adding that it could attract tourists in the future.
But activists have their doubts.
“There are no guarantees,” Debaya says.
“For years, there have been decisions and promises, but they’ve never been carried through.”

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