Close to Tazarka, in the governorate of Nabeul, Daroufa is a reputedly idyllic, pristine beach. This summer, Daroufa beach-goers, alarmed by the nauseating odor that sometimes emanates from the sea, gave voice to their concerns on social media. And yet nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary, says Rabeb, a Daroufa regular. The beach is located near the industrial zone called « Mazrâa », and the Sabkha, or wetlands. Not far away, at the beach in El Maâmoura, disenchanted locals film a stream of blackish water that is running into the sea.

Tunisians all along the country’s coast bear witness to the same scenario. « At Qaraiya, Monastir’s most popular beach, it is common to see run-off that is dark-colored and smells of fecal matter. Most of the locals in Monastir as well as visitors from surrounding cities swim in the sea here », says Ahmed Ghedia who serves as secretary general of the environmental association Notre Grand Bleu.

Beach-goers share the same images of sea water pollution on social media. They blame the National Sanitation Utility (ONAS). « The entire coastline has been put into jeopardy by the ONAS’ pollution », affirms Menyara al-Majbri of the environmental justice department at the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), in an interview with Nawaat.

In their report « Which environmental reality in Tunisia: Environmental rights between violations and daily struggles » (June 2022), the FTDES takes stock of the country’s marine pollution situation. The assessment corroborates citizens’ complaints, citing numerous examples of sea water pollution caused by the ONAS.

« I came to swim, and the ONAS overturned me [into the sea] »

In the case of Daroufa, the report offers an explanation for the nauseating odor that wafts in from the sea, pointing out « multiple environmental problems caused by the « Mazrâa » industrial zone which is the site of pollution-producing factories. The latter poorly manage the harmful waste that they produce, discharging it without prior treatment into on-site reprocessing stations, without any regulatory oversight carried out by the National Environmental Protection Agency ». With contaminated water being directed straight into the Tazarka wetland, wastewater management along the littoral is demonstrably ineffective.

« This catastrophic ecological situation is exacerbated by the presence of chicken slaughter facilities, factories that use dangerous chemical products and a ONAS treatment facility which collects household wastewater from the cities of Tazarka and Maâmoura. The treatment facility is thus saturated, and resorts to discharging all excess waste—untreated—directly into the sea, » the FTDES report reveals.

And yet Daroufa was not on the list of 21 beaches deemed unsafe for swimming by the Ministry of Health at the start of summer. Some of these beaches located in Tunis’ southern suburbs, Gabes and Dar Chaâbane (Nabeul), were condemned by the ONAS.

Denizens of the capital’s southern suburbs have repeatedly mobilized to draw attention to the deterioration of their beaches. They blame the ONAS which directly discharges wastewater into Oued Melyen, a river that feeds into the gulf of Tunis.

In 2019, a first bacteriological analysis of Ezzahra’s sea water was carried out by the Institut Pasteur in Tunis. A second analysis was carried out in July 2020 at the International Center of Environmental Technologies (CITET). « These analyses confirmed the pollution of Ezzahra’s sea water. The results of the second analysis were decisive, revealing a concentration level of 350 fecal germs per 100 milliliters of water at a beach located 150 meters from Oued Melyen. This level is three times the permissible maximum », reads the FTDES report.

ONAS’ ineffective treatment facilities

Through these examples of marine pollution, the FTDES exposes the deficiency of the ONAS’ water treatment facilities. « The treatment of wastewater from industrial zones mixes with household wastewater. The ONAS is overloaded by such a significant volume of waste, and, finding itself unequipped to execute tertiary wastewater treatment, pours this water untreated into rivers or the sea », explains Menyara al-Majbri.

Al-Majbri adds that treatment stations’ incapacity to manage wastewater is also the result of  population growth and the illicit installation of overflow canals, especially since coastal areas are already densely-populated.

« In Monastir, ONAS water treatment stations are under-sized relative to the region’s general population, especially during the summer season when tourists and visitors from other cities flock to the area. It is for this reason that every summer we find wastewater being discharged into the sea » remarks Ahmed Ghedia.

In the face of these challenges, al-Majbri tells Nawaat, the ONAS argues that it lacks the human and financial resources necessary to manage the issue. Nawaat reached out to the national utility for more information, to no avail.

According to al-Majbri, other government bodies are equally responsible in their failure to manage sea pollution. These include the Coastal Protection Agency (APAL) and the National Environmental Protection Agency (ANPE), both affiliated with the Ministry of the Environment. « These agencies », she tells us, « do nothing but prepare reports on violations committed, without sanctioning the violators, the main one being the ONAS ».

However, contacted by Nawaat, APAL communications officer Asma Ben Garga absolved the agency of any such responsibility: « Our management does not cover sea water, but rather only the beaches ». The APAL limits itself to cleaning the sand of 74 public beaches and 39 touristic beaches. For al-Majbri, regulatory bodies’ passivity is largely due to political instability: « Nobody wants to take a decision ». Including, al-Majbri continues, the Ministry of Health. « This ministry is supposed to safeguard the health of citizens, not just make a list of beaches to avoid ».

This policy of laissez-faire has enabled industrial plants to continue polluting. The FTDES reports that textile factories thus pour polluted water at will into rivers and flood protection canals without any oversight or regulation. Concentrated in Monastir and Tazarka’s industrial zone, the largest facilities discharge toxic water directly into the rivers that feed into the wetland, a designated protected area under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

The same is true in Haouaria where tomato canning factories discharge wastewater into the Sayadi river near a residential area.

In Gabes, the Chemical Group releases significant levels of phosphogypsum into the surrounding environment. Contamination by this toxic chemical product, which contains heavy metals and a number of radioactive materials, has caused Gabes’ sea water to darken. Swimming here is not recommended. Phosphogypsum pollution has not only seriously impacted tourism in the area, but even worse, as the FTDES report underlines, has favored the propagation of numerous illnesses, especially cancer.

Government’s flawed solutions

The Tunisian government not only fails to remedy these violations, al-Majbri points out, but indeed plays a role in exacerbating the imbalance that threatens the marine environment. Policy decisions aiming to palliate water scarcity and droughts favor the approach of sea water desalination. « This solution is costly and catastrophic for the marine balance since the salt derived from the desalination process is returned back into the sea, disrupting the entire marine ecosystem ».

Another « disastrous » choice signaled by al-Majbri is the installation of deep sea outfall pipes. This technique entails discharging treated wastewater into the deep waters of the sea. « This mechanism, which is as costly as it is water-consuming, is in no way suitable for a country threatened by drought, and does not mitigate sea pollution ». She notes that « Some officials with whom we are in contact mistakenly believe that the sea, by virtue of its perpetual motion, is self-cleaning ».

Nevertheless, effective solutions do exist, suggests our interlocutor, including the use of excess wastewater in agricultural activities.

In the meantime, Tunisians living along the country’s coastal stretch are already suffering the consequences of pollution. « For a country whose economy is based on tourism, the government is mishandling one of its strong points. We have witnessed how pollution on a beach like the one in Ezzahra has triggered economic decline, leading a once lively and attractive area into decay ».

Another pillar of the Tunisian economy, fishing, has also been disturbed by sea pollution. Beyond the extinction of numerous sea animals, also due in part to plastic pollution, many fishermen have been forced to switch to deep-sea fishing. Others, unequipped for this adaptation, either migrate elsewhere or turn to earning their living through illegal means (working as smugglers, etc.), al-Majbri recounts.

Now a veritable haven for bacteria, the sea has become a vector for a number of illnesses, most notably skin diseases and cholera. « We have already started to observe the presence of skin diseases in fishermen », al-Majbri observes.

If the situation continues, these diseases will start to infect beach-goers as well. And the future will remain grim for Tunisia’s coastline, with a health crisis as well as socio-economic and environmental disasters looming on the horizon.