July 27, 2021

In Tunisia, mayors rebel against pollution of beaches

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Volunteers collect waste on a beach in El Marsa, near Tunis, in July 2019.

On the coat of arms of the municipality of Raoued, a silhouette stands on a windsurfing board, cutting through the waves: “It was another time, a time when everyone came to bathe in Raoued. “ Adnene Bouassida, mayor of this town of 90,000 inhabitants in the northern suburbs of Tunis, sighs, nostalgic. Child of the medina, he went there regularly with the scouts on excursion. “Very good memories”, he adds.

Today, few vacationers or residents venture out for a swim. The beach is now too polluted, either by the detritus that accumulates on the sand, or by the discharges of rainwater pipes and treated water which flow directly into the sea via large pipes.

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When sanitation services fail, this treated water often ends up mixed with raw sewage, giving off foul odors in wadis. Swamps form, attracting swarms of mosquitoes. A spectacle that is increasingly difficult to bear for residents who prefer to go and relax elsewhere.

In a country popular with tourists for its coastline, pollution of beaches and wadis is a scourge for many coastal towns, particularly in the Greater Tunis region. The country, under water stress, has launched a policy of valuing effluents, in particular for agricultural irrigation. But the system still lacks breaking-in. Faced with the galloping urbanization of the capital, many wastewater treatment plants are saturated while others are still being rehabilitated.

A corridor of black water flowing into the sea

As summer approaches, the municipalities no longer hesitate to step up to preserve “their” Mediterranean. “Last year, with the confinement, the beach had regained its colors of yesteryear and we were able to return there, but it did not last long”, insists Adnene Bouassida. He regularly bangs his fist on the table with the authorities, because breakdowns and accidents at the National Sanitation Office (ONAS) are, according to him, too frequent.

“However, this public company has done a lot of work for several years to better manage wastewater treatment, he admits. But, despite the investments, there are still problems. ” ONAS is struggling to manage its infrastructure and lacks the means to operate its stations.

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In Hammam Chott, in the southern suburbs of Tunis, the young mayor Nizar Magri also bears the brunt of these untimely rejections. While the beach had just been cleaned for the summer season, on June 2, the town hall published in a Facebook post images of a corridor of black water flowing into the sea. a pipeline. “ONAS had to make a diversion and instead of pumping raw wastewater and putting it in cisterns, it was dumped into the rainwater pipe which goes to the sea”, accuse Nizar Magri.

For the municipality, it is one accident too many. “This is not the first time that this has happened and it is very serious, because our beach is the only one in the southern suburbs where people can still swim”, asserts the mayor. In most of the neighboring municipalities, this hobby is now prohibited because of pollution.

Fines not very dissuasive

Radès, another city in the southern suburbs, is also fighting daily. The mayor, Jawhar Smari, a former consultant in the agri-food industry, says that the municipality will now take charge itself of the analyzes of seawater in the municipality to show the extent of the nuisance. For him, the problem is not only due to ONAS, but also to the lack of control over the factories in the industrial zone and to the activities of the port.

“There are around thirty factories, including some in the agri-food and pharmaceutical sectors, which discharge a lot of chemical waste. Sometimes the raw water is poured directly into the sea ”, denounces the mayor. In the Meliane wadi, which descends to the coast, white foam floats on the surface.

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The fines against pollution in Tunisia are little dissuasive for companies – between 2 to 6 months in prison and up to 5,000 dinars fine (some 1,500 euros) – and the national environmental protection agency ( ANPE) also lacks controllers and resources.

With the mayor of Hammam Chott and those of the two other municipalities in the southern suburbs, he decided to file a complaint to denounce an environmental damage. “The positive point is that we are working with residents and civil society on this subject. Everyone is involved and the cause is publicized ”, says Nizar Magri, who castigates a “Criminal act” against nature.

Since the municipal elections in 2018 and the promulgation of a code of local authorities, mayors have been granted more power and they have a role, in particular in the protection of the environment, health and hygiene. But the city officials are also faced with a lack of means and legal resources to lead the fight. Especially since the issue of water pollution is linked to different ministries and control administrations, leading to an imbroglio in the procedures.

“We represent both the State and the citizens in the eyes of the voters”, remember Adnene Bouassida, emphasizing the complexity, in such a position, of entering into confrontation with a public company like ONAS. “We should be able to collaborate and find solutions, rather than having to file a complaint”, he sums up.