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Interviews conducted by Nour El Houda Chaabane and Yassine Bellamine ; adapted by Vanessa Szakal; photos and video by Ahmed Akari and Tarek Chouiref ; video editing by Tarek Chouiref, documentary translated by Vanessa Szakal.

I- Mirage Of «A Decent Life For All»

Eight kilometers south of Tunis is Borj Chakir, a town that has become infamous for a landfill that has had damaging effects on the surrounding environment and quality of life of locals. Over the years, a population of 50,000 -including the residents of El Attar/Borj Chakir, Jayara, and Sidi Hassine- has suffered from compromised health and sanitation as a consequence of the waste collection site that has contaminated air, water, and soil. Report on the landfill and stakeholders, the region and inhabitants of Borj Chakir.

The Borj Chakir landfill, created in 1999, is the largest dumping ground and only regulated landfill in Tunis (which includes the governorates of Tunis, Manouba, Ariana, and Ben Arous). The site occupies 120 hectares of what was once agricultural land planted with olive trees, almond trees, and grains. Today, between 2,700 to 3,000 tons of waste arrive daily, carried in on trucks trailed by a noxious odor that stretches the length of the road to Borj Chakir and penetrates nearby urban areas. The holding containers inside the landfill face open skies—no initiative has been taken to cover the mounds of waste. Stray dogs roam freely where the containment wall has been destroyed. The stench is omnipresent, nauseating, unbearable.

Environmental and Health Hazards

Pollution from the landfill has contaminated air, water, soil. The relationship between environmental impact and effects on human health are apparent. Kamel Marouani, a former employee at the landfill, developed lung cancer resulting from exposure to the toxic odors of leachate, a liquid substance produced when water percolates across zones where waste is stored. Without the financial means to pursue the treatment by doctors, Marouani returned to work at the landfill. He passed away shortly thereafter. Marouani did not benefit from social security either through the National Waste Management Agency (ANGED) nor the transport company ECOTI in charge of the landfill. ANGED CEO Habib Omran assured us that:

According to the administrative policies of ANGED, we cannot take on the cases of workers in the landfill operating companies. Nonetheless, I am personally taking charge of the case of Kamel Marouani and his family.

In addition to the fetid odor of leachate, landfill workers and inhabitants of Borj Chakir inhale the noxious gases of uncontained bio-gas. Though operating companies are responsible for implementing a containment system, the mechanisms used (primarily flaring) are but partially effective. A portion of bio-gas inevitably escapes into the atmosphere, dispersing byproducts and pollutants such as heavy metals. That which degrades the environment also constitutes a major health risk for inhabitants who suffer the cumulative effects of respiratory illnesses.

According to Article 47 of the constitution, «Children are entitled to be guaranteed dignity, health, care, and education from their parents and from the State. The State shall provide all forms of protection to all children with no discrimination, according to the best interest of the child».1

Barely 500 meters from the landfill and in the direction of the wind is an elementary school. «There are 140 children here. They are all asthmatic», the school guard told us. «They can’t even concentrate in on their courses due to the suffocating stench. In addition, they risk being bitten by the dogs running around right next to their classes». Aside from asthma, the children we met suffer from other respiratory and cardiac problems, infectious diseases, itching and skin irritation. These symptoms and associated psychological repercussions—trauma, anxiety, social stress— are widespread, affecting the majority of the region’s inhabitants.

This situation is the consequence of the «total irresponsibility and indifference» of the State regarding constitutional obligations, namely, the right to a decent life and clean environment. According to Article 12 of the constitution, «The State guarantees to citizens individual and collective rights, and provides them with the conditions to lead a dignified life». Article 45 stipulates that «The State guarantees the right to a sound and balanced environment and contribution to a sound climate. The State must provide the necessary means for combating environmental pollution».

The inhabitants of El Attar have protested their lamentable situation on several occasions. In March 2014, citizens’ demands prompted the intervention of the Minister of the Environment, and the following month a health brigade was organized by ANGED and SOS BIAA with the cooperation of several local residents. The action taken was short-lived, a one-time project as opposed to a sustainable social program or policy change that might effectively address the issues raised by residents.

Inside the Landfill

As we arrived at the entrance of the landfill, a band of young men and women rushed to hills of garbage to rummage. Our presence was met with evident mistrust, even aggression. Eking out a living on the waste at Borj Chakir, these barbéchas, as rag-pickers are called in Tunisian dialect, have become a veritable cast apart. Some 500 barbéchas work to sort and recuperate recyclable or reusable materials from the landfill, a dumping ground for mixed waste emptied out from dumpsters.

Barbéchas risk their lives in this undertaking, exposed as they are to explosions, chemicals, sharp objects, and asphyxiation from smoke and toxic fumes. The majority of their homes have been constructed using recuperated materials. Entirely dependent upon rummaging for their livelihood, they are on the constant look-out for trucks carrying in new loads of waste which they sell to warehouses close to the landfill. The work is extremely structured, rigorously divided in time and space. In light of the apparent efficacy of their coordination, we asked Habib Omran about the possibility of formalizing the sector.

«The barbéchas at the landfill of Borj Chakir come of their own accord and opt for vandalism. They are there in spite of everyone, in spite even of the police station located inside the landfill. Barbéchas have occupied this territory and do not allow anyone to enter». Omran explained that the informal sector which GIZ intends to structure concerns a certain category of rag-pickers. Those who work for ANGED collect only plastic bottles; barbéchas refuse any attempts to organize their operations.

Morched Garbouj, president of SOS BIAA explained, «In reality, barbéchas recycle only about 10% of the total quantity of waste. It’s a risky operation. Some have lost fingers or feet, others have been crushed by trucks as dumpsters are emptied. They experience catastrophes every day». Habib Omran confirmed as much, «Personally, I am against this inhumane sector, and I don’t think it is going to succeed. I guarantee that the barbéchas don’t wish to cooperate with us. They prefer to manage by themselves».

The barbéchas’ fears are not unfounded: they are aware that formalizing the sector is not a simple question of re-structuring or the provision of social security, but that it will entail restrictions concerning the type of waste they are permitted to recover. Moreover, these barbéchas will no longer receive direct remuneration from recycling warehouses, and will be obligated to report and pay taxes to the State. Barbéchas have always remained outside the system so as to avoid paying taxes, have developed family businesses and are not willing to divvy up their revenues. One thus understands their mistrust of outside visitors who represent a potential threat to their work given the rag-pickers’ at-odds relationship with authorities. Habib Omran explains, «For the State, the system run by barbéchas is less efficient than it is costly. We prefer to enter into a partnership with private companies so that they can take care of the problem».

II- An Ecological Disaster

The environmental repercussions are immediately apparent in the stench of decomposing organic materials and leachates which contaminate the groundwater table and produce bio-gas that is known to be carcinogenic. Inside the landfill, leachate containers constitute a capacity of 400,000 cubic meters. Whereas the toxic liquid requires regular treatment and elimination under strict regulations, one finds the leachate basins at Borj Chakir in the middle of former agricultural land, facing an open sky. According to one local, the leachate is dumped directly into running water. Omran told us, «We treat enormous quantities of leachate every day to avoid eventual contamination. Thus far we have eliminated eight basins. The five remaining will be definitively eliminated by June 2015». In fact, since 2004, the number of basins holding leachate increased considerably until this year (see animation below). It was not until 2015 that they began to be effectively eliminated.

Omran explained that «the containers are protected by a water-tight geo-membrane which prevents the contamination of the soil and groundwater». According to Omran, an impermeable 120-meter wide layer of clay renders the contamination of the groundwater improbable. But this protection is not sustainable given that no synthetic material is of infinite durability. In other words, the pollution is only temporarily displaced, and, as Garbouj of SOS BIAA confirmed, contamination is inevitable. Garbouj told us about studies carried out in 2008 and 2009 by the Ministry of Health in 2008 in which the authorities condemned the condition of a number of wells.

«The groundwater table is not deep (12-15 meters) and must be protected. The contamination of this source and of soil surrounding the landfill is undeniable». The impact study carried out by ANGED seems to have taken into account only the area occupied by landfill, while the effects on the surrounding environment and neighboring towns were not included within the scope of the report. During wintertime, these basins overflow onto neighboring lands, covering the whole village in river water mixed with leachate. According to Garbouj, this contamination reaches a radius of three kilometers around the waste site.

As for the discharge of leachate after the heavy downpours of the last rainy season: as soon as civil society actors warned us, we intervened directly to stop the flux. We demanded the reparation of the treatment station which was broken…inside the landfill there was already a leachate treatment station, and we reinforced its capacity with another mobile station, explained Omran.

Garbouj expressed his skepticism regarding the efficacy of the treatment stations: «Yes, there is always a treatment station for leachate in every landfill. It’s a black box to which we have no access. There are many questions that remain unanswered: are these stations working? If so, at what capacity? How efficiently? What is the quality of water treated and discharged?»

Whatever the efficiency and efficacy of the treatment station, satellite images and videos clearly indicate that it does not have the capacity to treat the enormous quantities of leachate discharged every day.

A Waste Management Operation Outside of Norms

According to the facility specifications published in 1997, the landfill at Borj Chakir is intended for solid waste.

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Garbouj explained that the testing of waste products was not adapted for Tunisia’s case. «The quantity and content of waste are not the same because the context is not comparable—lifestyle and consumption, climate, urban areas, technology…all of these characteristics are different».

The documents concerning the technology and strategies for waste disposal were based experiences in European countries. As a result, many parameters have not been observed in the application of these documents, particularly, for instance, the rate of humidity and storing procedures which do not conform to scientific standards nor the requirements laid out in the facility’s specification documents. ANGED has not been able to control the enormous quantities of leachate and its stifling odor nor will it be able to avoid eventual environmental contamination. Moreover, the quantity of waste received on site exceeds the quantity originally estimated. In the absence of alternative waste management strategies, the goal to simply do away with the deluge of waste resulted in the insufficient and haphazard expansion of containment basins.

With continued monitoring we can contain and reduce the amount of waste and resolve technical problems as they arise; of course, such monitoring and regulation requires political will. For now, the political will necessary for effective waste management is lacking, compromised by an inadequate institutional framework and the fact that the operation of the landfill is contracted out to private companies. Indeed, ANGED’s authority and decision-making capabilities in the sector are limited by the conditions and technical requirements set in the contract specifications for these private operating companies.

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Work has recently commenced to create the sixth and last waste container. Habib Omran too has set to work with a number of interventions in order to improve the living conditions of the region’s inhabitants by June. «Our first priorities are to complete the emptying of the leachate basins, to rebuild the wall, and plant the surrounding area with vegetation that has the capacity to absorb odors».

III- Endemic Corruption and Institutional Inadequacy

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Given its proven profitability, the waste management sector in Tunisia remains fertile ground for opacity and corruption. Before the revolution, political exploitation of the sector was flagrant, even institutionalized. Four years later, what has become of the industry?

An investigation into the social and environmental impacts of the landfill at Borj Chakir has indicated a complete lack of information concerning the operators and stakeholders of the waste facility which serves greater Tunis (including the governorates of Tunis, Manouba, Ariana, and Ben Arous). The closed network of actors ranges from barbéchas, or rag-pickers, whose work consists in sorting and selling recyclables and reusable materials, to the “big bosses” who operate covertly above them; from the private companies who officially manage the operation of the landfill, to the National Waste Management Agency (ANGED) that contracts them.

Beneficiaries of the Landfill

On the ground, barbéchas hold the monopoly. In theory, the operation of landfills in Tunisia is overseen by companies selected in a process of tender offers; these companies are obligated to respect the contract specifications prepared by ANGED which sets the conditions and technical requirements for operation of the waste facility.

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PIZZORNO-tunisie-corruption

Beginning 1 May 2009, the Borj Chakir landfill was jointly operated by the Municipal Agency for Environmental Services (AMSE) and the French Groupe Pizzorno Environment (GPE). Pizzorno specializes in the collection, transport, and recycling of household and industrial waste for the benefit of communities, businesses, and individuals. In 2011, Pizzorno vis-à-vis Francois Léotard (who occupied several ministerial posts under Francois Mitterrand), was accused of «undermining the interests of the State» by the National Commission for the Investigation of Corruption and Misappropriation (CICM). A report produced by the Commission (and cited in an article by Webmanager Center) stated, «It seems that F.L. used his authority and personal relations with Tunisian officials to influence the course of the market in favor of Pizzorno/Sovatrom and thereby benefit from undue advantage».

In Tunisia, Francois Léotard is suspected of having courted the Ben Ali clan to the end of having the landfill entrusted to a French group … Between 2005 and 2007, Tunisian authorities had launched three consecutive tenders, all unsuccessful, for the landfill of greater Tunis. Finally, in the fourth tender process at the end of 2007, Pizzorno landed the market, an equivalent of 20 million euros over five years. Francois Krug for Rue89, Ex-Minister and Lobbyist in Africa

On 9 June 2011, CICM filed a complaint against Pizzorno for the illegal contract award, which was terminated at the end of 2013.

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The waste management company ECOTI which subsequently took over is an agglomeration of the Tunisian companies Socobat and Al Badr plus a subsidiary of the Italian company DECO. Owned by the Di Zio brothers, DECO specializes in the collection, transport, and recycling of household and industrial wastes. It too has been accused of corruption and misappropriation at Pescara in Italy. In Tunisia, the DECO subsidiary operates the landfills of Borj Chakir in Tunis, Enkhila in Nabeul, and Oued Laya in Sousse.

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The Di Zio brothers thus acquired a market the equivalent of 460,000 tons per year following the launch of a tender for the operation of three landfills and thirteen recycle centers in Tunisia. According to an article in Il Centro, the ECOTI agglomerate was specifically created to win the contract award for waste management in Tunisia. Yet another Il Centro article indicates that ECOTI is in the process of building new landfills in Tozeur, Mahdia, and Zaghouane.

According to Morched Garbouj of SOS BIAA, the award contract for the operation of the Borj Chakir landfill was a national bid. In this context, ANGED favors established operating companies—SEGOR or ECOTI—preventing the introduction of new actors into the sector. As a result, waste management in Tunisia suffers a serious lack of competition. Activist for sustainable development Afef Tlili affirms that «the low number of operators is at once the cause and effect of the current system …all violations are the responsibility of the Tunisian administration.»

Suspicions of Corruption

Of course one cannot ignore that environmental institutions in Tunisia are also suspected of endemic corruption. At a press conference in July 2014, lawyer Faouzia Ben Abdouni emphasized that «the department of the environment was created in 2005– not to develop policies and innovative projects for waste management or treatment plants, but to absorb the resources provided by international funding partners and to invest them, in the complete absence of regulations, in personal projects profiting powerful clans and those associated with them.»

Since its inception, ANGED has allocated resources for the so-called restoration of Tunisia’s image as a country that protects the environment. Since the revolution, however, ANGED has opted to ignore internal issues and continue forward with an unchanging policy. This institution has completely eclipsed and denied the true judiciary and institutional issues that affect the country’s waste management sector, pretending that the problem afflicting the operation of landfills is purely technical.

Inappropriate Legal Status

The legal status of ANGED as a non-administrative public establishment (EPNA) is inherently problematic. Activist Tlili wonders, «To what extent is its legal character adapted to the functions of this institution?»

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«This status requires a procedure manual that describes the organization as well as its administrative, financial, and budgetary functions,» added Tlili. Such guidelines would delineate a formal framework for the implementation of operations with a strict analytical approach, guarantee the consistent regulation and internal efficiency of a waste management system, require the accountability of personnel in the fulfilling of their missions, and prevent potential administrative violations and misappropriation. The environmental record to date proves the extent to which the absence of such guidelines is catastrophic.

In terms of market competition, ANGED’s credibility is compromised by the nature of its contracts with operating companies. ANGED has entrusted the landfills to sub-contractors in the absence of strict regulations which would limit the occurrence of deviations from technical norms. Serious doubts remain as to ANGED’s capacity to organize and manage particularly at the regional and local levels. For instance, does ANGED budget and measure the cost of its operations? Does the agency monitor or evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of its projects?

Lack of Communication

More than anything else, the problems manifest in the operation of the landfill at Borj Chakir stem from institutional and organizational deficiencies. A primary example is the administration’s lack of communication with citizens and civil society actors. The exclusion of Borj Chakir residents in decision-making processes is another factor that has compromised ANGED’s credibility. «At Borj Chakir, the problem would be resolved with the inclusion of the region’s inhabitants. Unfortunately, we are far from this reality as ANGED continues to carry out activities against the will of inhabitants without explaining the process or taking responsibility to provide compensation or propose a housing solution.»

But the lack of communication begins higher up the ladder, between ANGED and the institution within which it was created: the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development. Given its financial autonomy (ANGED directly collects eco-taxes from municipalities), the agency remains more operational than the Ministry whose function is limited to the approval of ANGED’s suggestions. «ANGED does not inform enough. Are activity reports regularly published? Does the public have access to general information relating to the agency’s projects?»

Afef Tlili recalls that the cost associated with environmental degradation in greater Tunis due to poor solid waste management practices amounts to 17.3 million euros, or 16% the GDP of Greater Tunis and 4% the national GDP. As discussed in the report below, the cost of inaction and unseized opportunities (for funding, project proposals, etc.) is estimated to be 23.1% million euros.

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Today, ANGED is faced with an inevitable decision: put an end to its monopoly in the waste management sector and become a national board for waste management, or reclaim its principal mission to reinforce the capacity of municipalities. Concerned civil society actors have mobilized and want to participate in a decision-making process for more dynamic governance in the country’s waste management sector. Legislative, institutional, and administrative reforms are indispensable for more accountable and effective governance, and will be a sign of genuine political will to protect the environment.

Notes

1. Constitutional articles cited throughout the text are from the Jasmine Foundation’s Unofficial Translation of the Constitution of the Tunisian Republic.