Share A factory of the Tunisian Chemical Group, in Gabès, in July 2017. STRINGER / AFP "Before, the grenades from Gabès were the best in the country", remembers Kilani Ben Youssef while showing with his calloused hands his harvest of fruits, of which "Many are dried out and tasteless" . Located 1.5 km from the industrial phosphate processing zone of Gabès in south-eastern Tunisia, Kilani Ben Youssef does not know what the future holds. "I have been a farmer all my life, I can only do that. But now even the products I sell have to be polluted. " So no question of her son taking over his business. Every year, Kilani Ben Youssef has experts assess the level of contamination of his land, in order to receive financial compensation from the Tunisian Chemical Group (GCT), the main public company operating in Gabès. But with the difficulties of this flagship sector of the national economy, "It takes a lot longer and they don't do much anymore", laments the peasant, who is far from being the only one to pay the high price for this industry for which Tunisia occupied fifth place in the world in the early 2010s. Since then, social demands have greatly disrupted the production of phosphate, concentrated on the Gafsa basin. It has just returned to its level of ten years ago, with just over 4 million tonnes in 2019. Article reserved for our subscribers Read also Tunisia sick of its phosphate Gabès hosts around 20 export factories, including GCT units, which transform phosphate into phosphoric acid and fertilizers. For its 150,000 inhabitants, pollution has become an everyday battle. "Almost half of the patients we see in the emergency room have respiratory pathologies", Moncef Larbi, doctor at Mohamed-Ben-Sassi hospital and at the Ghannouch basic health center, one of the areas close to the GCT, testifies: "Children suffer from asthma very early, lung cancer is common. However, no study has been carried out to establish a link between the resurgence of these diseases and pollution linked to phosphates. " A silent drama Data from the National Environmental Protection Agency (ANPE) attest to the exceedances of the thresholds set by the World Health Organization (WHO) for air quality, but they are little taken into account by authorities. In March 2018, the European Commission published a study according to which 95% of atmospheric pollution in the Gabès region is attributable to gaseous fumes from the GCT, composed of fine particles, sulfur oxide, ammonia and fluoride hydrogen. The sea, continue the authors, is contaminated by phosphogypsum discharges which form a kind of brown mud, visible to the naked eye, around the factory installed on the coast. Some 5 million tonnes have been spilled in the past 30 years. Read also The "legmi", a well-kept secret in southern Tunisia "In Ghannouch, the inhabitants die slowly and no one says anything because many work in the phosphate industry. Even the dust here is polluted. It’s a drama unfolding before our eyes ”, slides a former nurse. This silent drama sometimes takes a catastrophic turn, as on December 9, when residents of Ghannouch and Chott Essalam arrived at the hospital suffocating. The factory had carried out a degassing operation, letting out orange smoke from the chimneys. "We sometimes run out of oxygen masks for first aid", testifies the doctor Mourad Thabti. He deplores the fact that these operations, which are normally scheduled once a year, now take place almost every three months, causing panic among the population. "There are no more fish" Despite the protest movements and the denunciations of civil society, the GCT is still present, like a behemoth of gas and dust that stands by the sea. Salah El Wardi, 45, fisherman and resident of Chott Essalam, fights thanks to his union, even if he often has the feeling of being powerless. He hasn't been fishing here for a long time. "I leave my blur (little boat) in Zarzis, a few kilometers away. There's no point here, there are no more fish. Phosphogypsum releases create a disturbance in the water temperature, so that in winter it is too cold for them to lay eggs. Added to this are the heavy metals which remain in suspension and prevent the development of marine plants. " Fishing is the sector most affected by pollution: according to the European Commission, "The fishing yield in Gabès experienced a very marked downward trend of 44%" between 2000 and 2015, against an increase of 52% in Médenine, 75 km away. Article reserved for our subscribers Read also The Mediterranean is warming 20% faster than the rest of the world Nostalgic, Salah El Wardi remembers Gabes from his childhood: "There was the Chenini Oasis, where the calechiers went on walks for tourists and where hotels were built to show off the beautiful landscapes around the city. Gabès is now nothing more than a soulless industrial city. " The vast Chela Club hotel complex is permanently closed and converted into a cultural center for young people. The tourist souk is deserted and the only traces that locals find of a once beautiful city are in postcards and memories of their parents. offshoring However, the region of Gabès harbors the only coastal oasis in the Mediterranean. "That’s why a lot of young people like me are involved in anti-pollution campaigns, we don't want that anymore. When our parents tell us what the city looked like, we realize that this is not where we grew up, " testifies Haifa Bedoui, 26, teacher trainee who campaigns for the total closure of the site. However, the GCT directly and indirectly employs over 4,500 people. What would happen to them when the unemployment rate is 25% in Gabès (compared to a national average of 15%)? In 2017, the government announced that the company would be relocated about sixty kilometers away, to Menzel El Habib, which will house by 2030 "An integrated industrial city that respects the environment", in the words of the Minister of Industry at the time. Activists see this as only a displacement of the problem. “These factories are and will remain polluting. No impact study has been published on this project, the foundation stone of which should be laid in early 2020. There is no transparency on the part of the authorities ", said Khairreddine Debaya, one of the main initiators of the Stop Pollution movement. Others, such as Mohamed Ali Daymi, a teacher at the Faculty of Sciences in Gabès and author of a summary on the pollution of the city, considers that closing these industries is not necessarily the only option, provided that they are committed to a policy of social and environmental responsibility which makes it possible to really prevent pollution. In the meantime, change is long overdue. On December 25, the municipality of Gabès was again forced to issue a press release to alert residents to the toxicity of industrial emissions. Lilia Blaise (Gabès, Tunisia, special correspondent) Share
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