Tunisia's poorest towns left to shoulder burden of hazardous toxic landfill sites | Simon Speakman Cordall

Waste dumped at landfill sites represents a growing threat to poor communities in Tunisia, polluting air and water supplies

Salah Darghouth's frustration is visible. "You see that guy working on the ninth floor," says the adviser to Tunisia's sustainable development ministry, pointing at a labourer on the half-built tower block opposite. "He harasses me. Every day I watch him and all the others throw their refuse on to the street below – concrete, litter, everything."

Across Tunisia, with the dust of revolution beginning to settle, refuse looms large in the public conversation. Litter, especially plastic bags, has come to dominate the country's famously dramatic landscape. The problem is felt by all citizens, but none experience it more acutely than those living next to the straining landfill sites.

Ridha Trabelsi, 45, a shopkeeper who lives in the small Tunis suburb of el-Attar, is a case in point. "Would you like to live here?" he asks, gesturing towards nearby Jbel Borj Chakir, Tunisia's largest landfill site and a source of growing exasperation. "They said they were going to close it last year, but they haven't. It's still here and it's only getting bigger."

The impact of landfills on such areas is difficult to overstate. In 2011, after the Jasmine revolution, it was the landfill sites at Djerba, Enkhila (near Nabeul), Oued Laya (near Sousse), Agareb (near Sfax), and the country's only hazardous waste-treatment plant, at Jradou, that bore the brunt of local residents' fury.

All were closed, most of them temporarily, as a result of violence. Jradou remains shut, and it is unclear where its waste is being treated. Plans to reopen the Djerba site have triggered more violence.

In el-Attar, the stench of rubbish chokes the air; it sticks in your throat and permeates your clothing. Trabelsi's son, eight-year-old Mohamed, is asthmatic. Respiratory illness is rife.

"When you build a landfill, you build it for a specific period," says Morched Garbouj, an environmental engineer and president of the SOS BIAA environmental group. "Here at Jbel Borj Chakir, that period ended in 2013. At that point, it should either have been closed or, at the least, operating at around 10% to 20% capacity."

According to Darghouth, no decision has been taken on the long-term future of Jbel Borj Chakir. "We're taking delivery of around 2,000 tonnes of waste every day. That has to go somewhere … We're just dealing with everything on a day-to-day basis while we work to implement a larger strategy."

"One of the problems here is that we don't know what kind of waste we're dealing with," says Garbouj. "Elsewhere, waste is separated, here it all gets dumped together – chemical, industrial, household and medical." Residents and those who make their living scavenging the dump have reported finding blood bags and foetuses in the refuse at Jbel Borj Chakir, a claim denied by Agence Nationale de Gestion des Déchets, which manages waste on behalf of the environment ministry.

"I didn't just see them [the different types of waste], I handled them," says Kamel Marouani, a former refuse worker. "Chemical, medical, everything."

"One of the problems with all the different types of waste is the leachate it produces [the liquid produced at the base by the compressed refuse]," says Garbouj. "Leachate is highly toxic, so there are strict controls about how it should be treated and disposed of. However, because no one knows what's in it, no one knows how it should be treated."

Marouani, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in August 2012, worked at Jbel Borj Chakir for 10 years, the past five for a French firm, Pizzorno, one of three contractors that manage landfills for the Tunisian government. One of his tasks was to work in the 10 leachate basins that surround Jbel Borj Chakir. He was required to wade through the often chest-high, reeking, black leachate – building dams or clearing away the thick foam that forms on the surface of the basin.

SOS BIAA estimates that the cost of transporting and disposing of waste at Jbel Borj Chakir was about $110-$125 (£65-£75) a ton, compared with the equivalent cost in New York of $86. This was despite significantly lower overheads. Trucks dumping at Jbel Borj Chakir pay Pizzorno $15 for every ton of waste deposited in return for the firm's expertise in managing the site. Given that, on an average day, about 3,000 tons of waste is deposited, that equates to a daily revenue stream of $45,000. The costs of trucks and labour are billed to the Tunisian government.

In 2011, Pizzorno was the subject of a complaint by the post-Arab spring government's Commission of Investigation on Corruption and Embezzlement over its dealings with President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's regime. On 15 March, Pizzorno's five-year contract with the Tunisian government expired. No decision has been taken on a possible successor. Pizzorno, which continues to manage the site on a caretaker basis, declined to comment on any of the points raised in this article.

Desta Mebratu, deputy director of the UN Environment Programme's regional office for Africa, said: "Disposal in sanitary landfills is the last option that should be considered … Tunisia is one of the first African countries that established a national programme on waste minimisation and cleaner production. This programme has led to reduction of a generation of industrial waste and reduction of pollution."

In el-Attar, little of this matters. Children continue to play near the landfill site. According to SOS BIAA tests, the local water supply – like all the water within a 5km radius – continues to be contaminated by fine particles, nitrates and even heavy metals from the dump. Trabelsi looks at the mountain of refuse that dominates the landscape for miles. "We have sick old people. Our children are sick. We can't continue."


Simon Speakman Cordall

The GuardianTramp

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