On June 5, 2022, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first United Nations Environment Conference, which led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Program and to the designation of June 5 as World Environment Day. At the same time, in the south of Tunisia, the region of Gabès, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Tunisian Chemical Group, a public company operating phosphate mines since the 1970s.
Gabès is located 365 kilometers from the capital Tunis, and is characterized by an ancient traditional coastal oasis unique in the world—one of the last examples of an oasis of this type. Gabès is surrounded by an exceptional landscape and constitutes a refuge for a fauna rich in small mammals, reptiles, mollusks, insects, and trans-Saharan migratory birds. The economy of the governorate is based, like all governorates close to the Mediterranean Sea, on agriculture and fishing. The governorate is one of the richest fishing areas in Tunisia.
In the industrial field, Gabès has various chemical industries, focused on the transformation of phosphate, with the production of phosphoric acid, diammonium phosphate, and dicalcium phosphate. Today, about 10 factories are located in the Gabès region, including the Tunisian chemical group (GCT), whose main activity is to transform approximately 3.5 million tons per year of phosphate from the mining basin of the Gafsa region into phosphoric acid and fertilizers.
The pollution generated by the activity of the Tunisian chemical group by dumping its waste into the sea since 1972, is represented in several forms, such as water pollution which leads to massive mortality of species. It also has less visible consequences on the quality of groundwater. We can see the impact of this industry in the surrounding beaches, where numerous species of birds, fish, and crabs were found dead.
Pollution has even affected water tables—the boundary between the unsaturated area and aquifers—because of the industrial activity in the region. As a result, the level of pollutants in the water is high in drinking and irrigation water.
In addition, air pollution generated by the emission of toxic gas emanating from those factories threatens the health of the inhabitants of the region. This pollution has become a daily battle—people have been suffering from respiratory pathologies and children are diagnosed with asthma at an early age. “The inhabitants of Gabès suffer from different respiratory diseases, and lung cancer is very common in the region,” explains activist Ahmed Hmida of the association Environmental sense. “Pollution threatens our daily lives today.”
The installation of the industrial zone in 1972 between Gabès and the region of Ghannouch marks a turning point for the oasis. Water resources have been shared between traditional agriculture and the intensive chemical industry.
According to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, “the oasis system of Gabès is a thousand-year-old agricultural treasure under threat.” The factories and subsequent pollution has caused the acidification of the soil, which has led to a loss of yields and infertile soils. Agricultural activity has fallen sharply, impacting the area’s economy.
Faced with this situation, the region’s inhabitants, and more particularly the younger population, decided to oppose the industrial giant. For years, several citizen movements have regularly organized marches and demonstrations, attracting hundreds of people each time, to claim the right to a dignified and healthy life. For example, the Stop Pollution movement, launched in 2018, calls on the Tunisian government to dismantle the Tunisian Chemical Group industry.
The slogan “Stop pollution, I want to live,” denouncing the pollution suffered by the Tunisian governorate, was launched by the Stop Pollution movement on social media platforms in 2021 to denounce the harmful practices of state industries against nature and health of residents. The movement claims that no security measures have been taken to protect innocent people’s health and the region’s nature. On the sidelines of World Environment Day on June 5, the movement organized a demonstration in front of the headquarters of the Tunisian Chemical Group located in Tunis. At the same time, a similar event was scheduled by the organization in Gabès, with the aim of denouncing the pollution and the harm the chemical group has caused in the region for 50 years. “The environmental situation in Tunisia is not to be celebrated given the risks that threaten the region,” declared the movement.
The fight of the different civil society movements continues in order to save the city. Camp Climat 2.0 – Gabès was organized in the third week of October 2022 by the Stop Pollution movement. This event on climate justice, which brought together 400 Tunisian and international activists in the heart of the oases of Gabès, was to raise awareness of the urgency of saving this natural environment. This camp was held two weeks before COP 27 which is set to take place in Egypt.
The current state of the city of Gabès generates acute, chronic, and ecotoxic health and environmental risks that affect people and nature. Today, the people of Gabès are not only asking for a reduction in pollution, but for the gradual—even immediate—closure of the chemical group. It is important today to review the city’s economic model and adopt one that results in improved wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and the overuse of resources.
Adel Azouni is a geologist based in Tunis and passionate about environmental activism.