Despite Tunisia’s one remaining economic success story, agriculture, being at serous risk from climate change, the country’s disparate environmental groups are still struggling to focus the public’s attention on the risks.
A report released last August by the Department of the Environment and Sustainable Development said Tunisia “is considered among the most exposed Mediterranean countries in terms of climate change”; the risk of rising temperatures and sea levels, droughts and floods “translate into a profound environmental and socioeconomic vulnerability.”
70 percent of Tunisia’s population and most of its industry are located in low-lying coastal areas.
Furthermore, last week, the Ministry of Agriculture told reporters that the incidence of drought-years has doubled in recent history, a phenomenon that threatens the country’s currently thriving olive industry. The sector employs around 390,000 agricultural workers and has brought in $1.07 billion in 2015.
At this month’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris, Prime Minister Habib Essid reiterated the nation’s September pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 41 percent before 2030. But Morched Garbouj, president of the local environmental organization SOS-BIAA, doesn’t believe the pledge represents an earnest commitment to environmental movements.
“For the government, it’s a way to get money,” he told Tunisia Live.
The plan for reducing Tunisia’s carbon footprint is said to cost $20 billion and will depend heavily on international funding. All but 11 of the world’s nations have made a similar pledge, though many are smaller than Tunisia’s in terms of percentage reduction of carbon emissions. The abstaining nations include North Korea, Libya and Syria.
Tunisia is in the same frustrating position as many countries in that it could bear the brunt of climate change, but it has little power to reverse the environmental effects.
“On one hand, Tunisia is threatened by climate change,” Garbouj said, pointing to the country’s more than 1,100 kilometers of coastline and heavy economic dependence on agriculture. “But on the other, we can’t really do anything about it, because our contribution to carbon emissions is less than 0.07 percent,” he added.
In contrast, the world’s biggest economies, the United States, China, and the European Union, contribute 16, 15 and 12 percent, respectively, to the carbon-emission total.
In addition to climate change, Tunisia faces other urgent environmental issues like severe air pollution and the dumping of industrial waste into the Bay of Tunis. While these issues may have a more tangible impact on the lives of Tunisians, Garbouj said that organizers raising awareness around them have to contend with widespread apathy.
His response to the questions “Is there a grassroots climate change movement in Tunisia?” and “Does the average Tunisian care about climate change?” was a double-barreled “No.”
Aya Chebbi, a feminist activist and blogger who also works and writes on environmental issues, said that a major part of the problem comes down to organizing.
“In Tunisia, we are still not organized into an environmental or climate justice movement,” she told Tunisia Live. “Movements still don’t work intersectionally, so we don’t realize how interconnected our issues are, and therefore they don’t support one direction and visible voice and that’s why you have the feeling that no efforts are made for climate change in Tunisia.
“There [are efforts being made], especially by young people in Gabes, but they’re very scattered and not supported within other movements,” Chebbi added.
One obstacle is that NGOs that focus on environmental problems have to compete for attention with problems that many Tunisian’s consider more pressing, like this year’s attacks by Islamist militants.
“For a while we managed to make waste water and solid waste hot topics,” said Garbouj. “Then suddenly you have a terrorist attack, and for a month it’s all that’s talked about.”
Last May, SOS-BIAA (biaa is the Arabic word for “environment”) organized a large conference, thinking that the dust had settled from the Bardo attack and that the public’s attention could be drawn back to environmental issues. But the following month the attack on Sousse caused the media to focus on security once again.
Chebbi rejects what she calls the “discourse of priorities” that allows environmental issues to be sidelined. “There should be a comprehensive national strategy across sectors that is concerned about climate change as much as security,” she said.
Despite the current problems with the Tunisian environmental movement, Garbouj thinks the situation is improving. He said that the better-funded NGOs are those founded before the revolution, which were subject to the policies of the Ministry of the Environment under Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and for the most part remain among the less progressive organizations.
But several post-Revolution organizations have sprung up, which Garbouj said tend to be side projects for working people or students. But he’s hopeful that they will bring more attention to the issue.
Additionally, in January 2014, Tunisia became the third country in the world (after Ecuador and the Dominican Republic) to adopt a legal commitment to climate change when it ratified a constitution that included an article about the State’s obligation to protect the environment for future generations.
As with the COP21 pledge, Garbouj sees this as a political stunt, but one that could potentially be used by activists in the future.
“If environmental protection is in the constitution, when NGOs become larger, they can sue the government,” he said.
Chebbi agrees that Article 45, the relevant section of the constitution, could eventually be used by environmental activists to effect positive change. “It’s a good first step,” she said. “Now we need to build on that, use our constitutional law and organize.”