In Tunisia, the waste management time bomb

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Security forces face protesters during a general strike on November 10, 2021, following the reopening of a landfill near the town of Agareb, in the central region of Sfax.

Waste that accumulates and military vehicles posted in front of public institutions to ensure their protection. 300 kilometers south of Tunis, Agareb still bears the scars of the clashes that devastated this small town of some 11,000 inhabitants between 8 and 11 November. Tensions caused by the authorities’ decision to reopen the El Gonna landfill, located a few kilometers from the city center.

The demonstrations were put down with tear gas. A man died, Abderrazak Lachab, suffocated by gas according to his relatives and witnesses. A version denied by the Ministry of the Interior, speaking of a natural death. The National Guard post has since been burnt down and the army has been deployed to maintain calm. But on the walls of the city, the tagged portrait of Abderrazak Lachab with the epitaph “Always in our hearts” recalls that the exasperation of the inhabitants remains unresolved.

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It must be said that the Agareb open-air dump is the second largest in the country: it receives 80% of the waste from the twenty-three municipalities of the Sfax region, Tunisia’s economic hub. When it opens in 2008, there is talk of being put into operation for only five years. But, in 2013, the site is still operational. The population is mobilizing to obtain its closure. In vain for many years.

It will be necessary to wait until the end of September 2021 for the landfill to be closed. According to the inhabitants, this is the result of a court decision rendered in 2019 following a complaint from civil society. According to the National Waste Management Agency and on-site employees, it was only a « maintenance ».


Anyway, for lack of a new place to deposit the garbage, the garbage piled up in Sfax and the surrounding municipalities for fifty days. An untenable situation which prompted the authorities to reopen the landfill, causing Agareb to become angry.

“From the moment it opened, the site was a problem. Not only did he not respect a certain number of health standards, but no preparatory consultation had been made in connection with the inhabitants ”, explains Ines Labiadh, coordinator of the environmental justice department within the Tunisian Forum of Economic and Social Rights (FTDES).

A bulldozer buries rubbish after the reopening of a landfill near the Tunisian town of Agareb, in the coastal region of Sfax, on November 9, 2021.

If its closure has been repeatedly postponed, it is because ” the authorities were unable to cope with the increase in waste caused by the boom in industries in the region ”, she adds, recalling that ” there is currently no long-term strategy to offer alternatives to this kind of landfill ».

The Agareb site destroys waste by landfilling, a preferred method for solid waste in Tunisia, with its share of nuisances. In Agareb, the nauseating odor that emanates from the heap of waste buried under a thin stream of ocher earth takes visitors by the throat. “This smell mixes with the air we breathe every day”, denounces Salama Sghaier, a young inhabitant of the city engaged in the Manich Msab collective (“We are not a dump”).

High frequency of certain diseases

Made up of activists and artists, the movement denounces since 2018 the toxicity of the landfill. “This stench is permanent, recalls Salama. During the day, it accompanies the ballet of garbage trucks and at night, when the activity of the city stops, the smells seem even stronger. “ He was a high school student when he began to learn about the environmental impact of such a landfill, but in the city, awareness has been growing. “Citizens have been interested in it for several years, also because the question of waste is now of interest to the media”, he adds.

In February 2020, the investigative program The Four Truths denounces an environmental scandal, which would have lasting effects on the health of residents. The investigation revealed in particular the presence of toxic gases which would pollute the water of neighboring agricultural land.

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If the absence of scientific studies on the question does not confirm the cause and effect links, many residents and doctors point to an abnormally high frequency of certain diseases, in particular cancers. “I have been working in the region for twenty years, I can confirm that the cases of respiratory disease, lung cancer have increased since the opening of the landfill”, underlines the emergency doctor Bassem Ben Ammar, also evoking the proliferation of skin diseases, allergies and eczema.

But the issue of waste management goes far beyond Agareb. It regularly makes headlines in Tunisia. In 2014, the island of Djerba found itself under the garbage after the closure of a landfill. In 2020, it was the scandal of Italian waste imported illegally into the country that sparked outrage in public opinion. On social networks, groups are mobilizing to denounce the open dumps or the anarchic dumps that dot the country.

“Change model”

For Chokri Bahri, member of the Manich Msab collective, what happened in Agareb should serve as an electric shock for the authorities. The collective was received by the President of the Republic Kaïs Saïed after the clashes in early November but, for the moment, the only solution proposed by the Minister of the Environment is to reopen the landfill while trying to minimize certain nuisances, such as odors, with deodorants and insecticides.

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“I have the impression that we are being made fun of, gets angry Chokri Bahri. These are only short term solutions. “” What is needed is to change the model, to move towards waste recovery and recycling. In short, everything that we have been talking about for years and that the authorities, for the moment, do not offer anything ”, adds Maamoun Ajmi, a 29-year-old designer, member of the collective.

All warn that they are ready to mobilize again, “Peacefully”, if the authorities try to reopen the landfill. Meanwhile, waste continues to pile up in the Sfax region. If the city center temporarily dumps its garbage in a landfill next to the port, the other municipalities are crumbling under garbage.