The “black spots” of Tunisia

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It has been three years that Tunisia has been transformed into an “open landfill site”. It is easy to blame the sanitation workers for the situation. But they are only partially responsible of it. The multitude of parties, both public and private, involved in the “waste cycle”, lack of resources and equipment, municipal interventions and the delicate question of storage sites are all factors that contribute to the current crisis.

The “black spots”. The spots where the citizens deposit waste bags to be collected by garbage men are called as such by municipal agents. Often improvised, beside the sidewalk, in front of houses, in the streets, even in front of schools, these “black spots” have multiplied after the revolution, a proof of the defeat of the sanitation workers and the citizens. And the vision of bins spilling and bags scattered on the fields or on the vacant lots between the buildings makes the situation worse.

From Tunis to Djerba, where the situation is critical, sanitation is a problem. The constant presence of garbage bins overflowing in the streets testifies to how the whole system of waste management after the revolution has collapsed.

Institutions state that they are not anymore able to deal with the strikes by garbage collectors and popular discontent, in addition to the opposition to the creation of new landfills in different locations.

The government of Mehdi Ben Jomma announced an action plan, but will it be enough to put an end to the crisis that affects all sectors? Because the authorities can not remain with folded arms, the new Constitution obliges them to intervene.

An already precarios collection system threatened by the revolution

Regarding waste, Tunisia was the first of its class on an international level, having been the first African country to transform its “anarchic” waste into controlled waste. The avenues entitled by the environment and the statue of the fennec, fox with long ears, that sat on every roundabout, were there to remind the importance of environmental protection. In the ‘90s, the illegal landfills started to be closed and waste management was regulated by 10 June 1996 law decree 16-41. But even under the regime of Ben Ali, the system of waste collection had flaws. The rapid urbanization and population growth had created considerable difficulties, both in waste collection and disposal.

The revolution has not made things better. Some landfills have been closed immediately by the people or by the ecological operators, as was the case in the hazadous waste disposal center in Jradou and the landfill of Guellala in Djerba.

Ridha Brahim, director of research at the ANGED, National Agency for Waste Management, points out that “most of the people do not want a landfill near their homes, and are in general opposed to the very idea of landfills.

According to Morched Garbouj from the SOS-BIIA association, this immediate reaction after the revolution has its roots in the situation that existed before: “After the fall of Ben Ali, everyone remembers that on 15 January, the streets were covered with garbage. The Inkhila landfill in Nabeul has been closed for more than ten months, the one in Monastir for four months, and the one in Jradoun is closed since 2011 and has not reopened. This only laid bare a system that no longer worked. The garbage collection worked in very rough manner, between private businesses, casual workers and municipal utilities that subcontracted a part of the services.”

Between privatization and subcontracting, the garbage system under Ben Ali was still standing on its feet, despite the problems, thanks to a police state. Abuse and corruption characterized the management of several municipalities, which after the revolution have not been able to do an audit of their financial statements, and have also seen a reduction in funding with the lack of tax collectors in charge of collecting taxes on the house and on hotel stays, on which depended the funds used for the collection of waste.

Waste management in Tunisia depends primarily on common and municipalities, which are responsible for the collection, but also sees the participation of numerous other public and private actors. Once collected, thanks to the use of tractors, bulldozers, trucks, shredders, waste is first deposited in a transfer center, and from there then distributed in landfills, usually positioned away from the city. The procedure includes both public actors and private. In Tunisia, the waste is buried, to minimize the environmental impact, especially when it comes to hazardous waste or too expensive to recycle, and household waste or the like. Hazardous waste is treated before being landfilled.

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How does the waste collection work?

Waste management in Tunisia depends primarily on municipalities, which are responsible for the collection, but also sees the participation of numerous other public and private actors. Once collected, with the use of tractors, bulldozers, trucks and shredders, the waste is first deposited in a transfer center, and then from there distributed in landfills, usually positioned away from the city. Both public and private actors make part of the procedure. In Tunisia, the waste is buried, to minimize the environmental impact, especially when it comes to hazardous waste or the waste that is too expensive to recycle, and household waste and the like. Hazardous waste is treated before being buried.

Nowadays, to counteract the accumulation of waste in the streets and the increase in illegal dumping, residents set fire to rubbish that cause serious health risks because of the pollutants given off. Nevertheless, the illegal dumpings multiply at a relentless pace, and the institutions in charge are not able to prevent it. About 10 legal landfills are in use in Tunisia. According to ANGED, only the one in Djerba is currently closed. Ten new landfills have been designed, but only in two sites the works almost finished (in Tozeur and Zaghouan), in 2 others the works stopped (Mahdia and Kabouti) and the other 6 are still in the study phase.

The proposed controlled landfill model does not satisfy all the residents, who complain of the stench and the location being too close to populated areas. Despite the fact that sites are chosen after careful preliminary studies, explains Patrick Winckel, engineer in Société Tunisienne pour l'Environnement (ETS)... “In all of the sites we proceed by elimination: the experts first identify several suitable land, which are then subjected to a selection committee composed by the representatives of relevant government departments, both at national and regional level (ANGED, ANPE, ministries of Agriculture, Interior, etc.). The final choice is made after investigation of the terrains (especially hydrological and geological surveys).”

Often on strike or blocked, the landfills are one of the problems of the waste collection system, because it is increasingly difficult to make the people accept the very notion of the landfill, such as in Djerba, where the situation is already critical. “After the revolution, and especially with the strike of the Borj Chakir landfill strike in 2013, we ended up with 200-250 tons of waste spilled into landfills each day, compared to 130/140 per day before,” complain Souheil Sassi and Anouar Ajouadi, secretary general of the town of Hay Ettadhamen and deputy director of public works, respectively.

The problems of the municipalities

Waste collection is up to the municipalities. At the time of Ben Ali, the system worked in terror, as evidenced by some municipal officials: “It was a system that already had problems at the time of the dictatorship, only that at the time no one dared to go on strike,” said an official of the municipality of Marsa. After the revolution, Marsa and the other municipalities have had to deal with the strike of the operators of the Jbel Borj Chakir landfill, which receives the waste of the Greater Tunis.

The Marsa municipality has created a temporary warehouse in the city, behind the Essada palace, waiting to be able to transfer the garbage to Jbel Chakir. Similarly, the town of Hay Ettdhamen outfitted a site to store garbage. But in other places, such as in Djerba, bags of garbage continue to accumulate in the streets.

Sometimes, however, it is the lack of resources and equipment that cause the problem, as in the case of the Ariana municipality that manages the collection in the district of the same name and in that of Menzah. “All our equipment has been burnt down during the revolution, and we had to buy it again, often with funds from donations from abroad. The bigger problem is not the lack of resources, but the bureaucratic delays related to tenders”, says Lotfi Dacharaoui, director of health services of the Ariana municipality.

Whereas for some municipalities the problem is the lack of funds, due to the failure to collect the housing tax, as in the case of the municipality of Bizerte, others blame the lack of autonomy and decentralization: “We wait for a grinder for over a year, but it is blocked at customs. Same thing for the spare parts of trucks and compactors, it often takes up to 6-7 months to import a spare part and repair the vehicle”,says Sofiane Bouslimi, General Coordinator of Public Works of Marsa.

Both he and Lotfi Dacharaoui complain also about a lack of qualified personnel: “We were forced to stabilize a lot of personnel after the revolution, but many of them are not qualified. Neither are there enough inspectors to ensure the monitoring of their work”, adds Sofiane Bouslimi.

Staff shortage also bears on the garbage in the streets. Of the 140 workers in force in the municipality of Ariana, 85 are employed in the collection of the bags because of the increasing number of “black spots”, explains Lotfi Dacharaoui. The remaining 55 are too few to maintain the cleanliness of the streets in an area that stretches from Ariana to Ennasr.

In addition, the street sweepers are stigmatized, now accused also for the continuous strikes. If they continue to go on strike, they do it to demand better working conditions, as well as an increase in employees’ salaries from 120/280 dinars in the past to the current 400, and the partial mechanization of the collection. In fact, it's up to them to pick up the bags gutted by berbechas, men and women rummaging in bins for plastic and glass for recycling. And they are always the main scapegoat of popular discontent for the proliferation of illegal dumps and street conditions.

The berbechas, on the other hand, act as a kind of “selectors”, before the waste goes to landfill. In the municipalities of Marsa and Ettadhamen, a project to integrate them into the system for the collection and management of municipal solid waste was initiated, with the support of the German Cooperation GIZ, so as to overcome the stigma which they are subject to. It is estimated that there are between 500 and 800 berbechas in Hay Ettadhamen, and about 140 in Marsa, paid between 300 and 500 Millim for a kg of plastic, depending on the cleanliness of the product. But they are often turned away by garbage collectors because they tear the bags, which the collectors must gather by hand. In other districts, the berbechas coordinate directly with the condos, to collect the plastic bottles and glass directly at the doors, thus avoiding the clog up at the bins.

What’s the role of the state?

There are two state actors that are primarily involved in the waste cycle. On the one hand there is the ANPE, National Agency for Environmental Protection, established by law no. 88-91 of 2 August 1988. Fighting against pollution and environmental degradation is among its tasks. It is the ANPE, for example, which must verify that the industrial waste disposed of in the landfills has been previously treated as required by law. It has no sanction powers, but it can write reports and initiate prosecutions.

According to Mounir Majdoub, Secretary of State for the Environment, the agency could not do its job properly, because its staff was limited to twenty people, too few to cover the whole territory. “Today we are reviewing the tasks of the agency, and we brought the workforce to 80 units.”

According to the municipalities, the problems stem mainly from the ANGED, National Agency for Waste Management, which commissioned the landfills to private companies, with the aim to reduce the burden on municipalities. But the privatization of the landfill has not solved the problem of the collection. Ridha Brahim, from ANGED, underlines that the agency was created in 2005 in order to assist the municipalities and the industries in waste management, and to contribute to the formulation of new policies in the industry. It is currently involved in the promotion of tri-selection (paper, glass, plastic) and utilization of waste through recycling, but Brahim must admit that the pilot projects undertaken so far have not yielded the desired results.

There’s also a lack of inter-municipal projects inter-municipal and provincial partnerships: the municipalities are not used to working through consultation, and this leads to considerable differences between one area and another. Nevertheless, there are those who try to work together, as in the case of the municipalities of Ariana and Raoued, who have started a shared collection system. And the city of Marsa is waiting for a plan for co-management of the collection with the municipality of Sidi Bou Said and Cartagine. The new Constitution also provides for a certain decentralization and autonomy.

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Risks of political exploitation and privatization of the sector

In summary, the waste management suffers on the one hand from a lack of concrete action by the state, and on the other hand the lack of real decentralization on the municipal level. The sporadic interventions by the Environment and the Interior Ministries do not lead to long-term results. Projects for the waste treatment prior to landfill are being studied: a pilot trial is in progress at the Beja composting site. With the coming elections, the issue of waste is trumpeted by supporters of Ben Ali and rode by key parties in the controversy, just as it had already happened during the 2011 campaign.

The privatization of waste collection is also a source of doubt. Although Mounir Majdoub insists that it’s not a matter of privatizing the entire sector, he admits that the government would like to see an increase in public-private partnerships. The privatization of landfills is already an important step in this direction. But, the impact of the privatization of the collection services aldo needs to be assessed. One wonders, however, whether such a privatization is in fact already underway, as many municipalities are making use of the services of private companies to cope with the accumulation of waste in the streets in the absence of state intervention. Between privatization and disorganization, the choice seems already to have been made.


Lilia Blaise

Translation from Italian: Ovgu Pinar













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