“I just want to sleep free from the smell”, Adam said, a seven-year old describing his life in el Attar, a small settlement clinging to the side of the country’s largest landfill, Borj Chakir. He held his father throughout, wary of the strangers who had just entered his home. When asked to talk about his life in el Attar, his mood frequently bordered on tears. Fathy Ayari, Adam’s father, bent his son’s neck to show the allergic skin rash on his head, caused by the polluted air, water and soil from the landfill in whose shadow they lived.
Skin issues are just one of the health hazards that allegedly come with life next to Borj Chakir. Exposure to the odors of leachate – a liquid of chemically hazardous substances – as well as the daily inhalation of bio-gas can cause severe respiratory issues. Many residents suffer from asthma. Worse developments are said to include lung cancer, which is reported to have already killed one of the town’s residents, Kamel Marouani, who worked on the landfill for almost a decade. Another resident, Muhammed Trabelsi had his leg amputated after stepping on an infected syringe while working on the site. When workers lack financial resources or government coverage for adequate health care, life becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible. The prospects of finding an alternative job or place of residence are dim, as the country suffers high rates of unemployment, dwindling public resources and low investments.
El-Attar’s school playground has piles of broken chairs and benches, yet the school facility barely has functioning furniture of its own. This latest addition to the sprawling landfill, located directly within the school’s grounds themselves, looks odd, almost as if chosen deliberately from spite. Snakes find refuge underneath the piles of broken school furniture in the children’s playground. Most pupils moved to schools in the bordering town, no longer able to bear the conditions any more. Looking out from the school, a landscape of little but fields and plastic bags is on show, the ground on which the residents grow their food, “This is where we grow our crops,” Fathy told us. Just a few meters behind him, the trucks fill the landfills with waste. Around 30 of them release garbage in the town per day. Unlike most European countries, the waste is mostly made up of organic compound, known for rotting quickly into leachate and dissolving into the nearby water supplies.
The companies operating in the area are responsible for implementing containment systems designed to avoid leaking, yet these are either lacking or incredibly inefficient. The World Bank, responsible for much of the investment in constructing the site has designated the risk to water supplies within the are as, “high”. To campaigners and the residents of el Attar, this at least is evidence of progress, in so far as organizations at the highest levels acknowledge the issue requires attention. However, no action has been taken so far.
The landfill has been functional since 1999. The government had planned to close the site in 2011, but it continues to operate despite residents’ calls to respect the due date of closure. Morched Garbouj, an environmental engineer and President of the advocacy group, SOS BIAA expressed his frustration over the government and municipalities’ failure to collaborate on finding an adequate solution for the waste affecting the lives of those living in Borj Chakir’s shadow. Speaking to Tunisia Live, Garbouj said, “The voices of el Attar and Borj Chokir were heard nationally and internationally, but the government does not care.” According to Garbouj, the residents’ only hope is to prosecute officials individually, but because of a lack of resources legal action on the part of the el Attar residents looks unlikely. Aware of its overpowering relative strength, the central government continues to expand the site, despite accusation of clear violations of the guidelines determining the limits of Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) – a poisonous, corrosive, flammaible and explosive gas – permitted in the area.
Pizzorno, the French private company responsible for managing the site is also difficult to hold to account. Following the revolution of 2011, the company was subject to a complaint by the Commission of Investigation on corruption and Embezzlement over its dealings with President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. In addition, the company’s contract in Borj Chakir has long expired. However, no successor has since been found, leaving the Tunisian government and the residents’ entirely beholden to French environmental giant’s goodwill. Workers, naturally keen to protect whatever resources they can in a time of dwindling in employment to provide for their families are happy to continue operating within conditions others have deemed intolerable, further justifying the government’s case for inaction.
During the 2011 revolution citizens across the country directly attacked litter collections in municipalities. “Close to 60% of municipal government trash equipment was burned or destroyed during the revolution,” stated the then Minister of the Environment of Tunisia, Mounir Madjoub, in an interview in 2014 . Frustrations over the administration mounted as protesters shut down garbage dumps, workers protested for higher pay, and garbage piled in the streets. Pressure grew on the government to adopt swift solutions to growing public discontent. As a result, the state centralized powers selected a few small towns to bear the weight of the majority of the country’s household waste. The tyranny of the majority took its toll. These towns, including that of el Attar, endure the brutal consequences of the country’s unwillingness to deal with its waste disposal.