El Khadra Still Can’t Breathe

This devastated community has been calling for help for years. Even in the new Tunisia, no one’s listening.



Kamela Souilmi’s son Wajdi was born in 2011, the year Tunisians took to the streets to demand the overthrow of their authoritarian government. “I call him ‘the child of the revolution,’” Souilmi says sarcastically, sitting next to the “for sale” sign on the wall of her run-down house as her 5-year-old plays in the dusty street. “He was a healthy baby, and then his lungs started getting worse. It’s because of the factory.” Pollution, it seems, is one of the problems for which revolution has brought no answers.

Souilmi, a 33-year-old mother of four, lives in El Khadra, a working-class neighborhood of unpaved roads and half-finished houses in the town of Kasserine, near the border with Algeria. The 2011 revolution may have transformed her country’s political culture, but Souilmi has yet to see any change in the conditions that torment her and the other members of her community. “I want to run away from this place,” she says. “We can’t stay here. There’s too much smoke. We wake up at night feeling asphyxiated, our eyes and noses burning.”

Like many residents of El Khadra, Souilmi is worried about the pollution that comes from the factory directly behind her house. The factory is owned by the National Company of Cellulose and Esparto Paper (SNCPA), which specializes in processing the esparto plant — a rugged, perennial grass native to North Africa that is used for making rope, baskets, espadrilles, and other goods. The factory also makes paper and chemical products.

At times, it also releases chlorine gas into the air. Many in El Khadra suffer from severe respiratory ailments, and they have good reason to believe that their illnesses are directly related to the plant. Souilmi wants to move because she thinks that her son has developed asthma from the fumes he has been breathing since birth. His mother is probably right to assume that her family’s health would improve if she moves away from El Khadra. It turns out, though, that the damage reaches much farther than many residents realize.

Naceur Mhamdi, deputy director of the Environmental Health Administration in Kasserine, says the pollution caused by the SNCPA isn’t limited to Kasserine or the neighborhoods surrounding the factory. He notes that the noxious fumes spewing from its smokestacks can travel up to 50 miles away. These emissions, Mhamdi says, can seriously damage the human respiratory system.

Map of central Tunisia

Saida Yahyawi, another El Khadra resident, complains of chronic allergies and shortness of breath. In June 2009 she was taken to the local emergency room when a chlorine gas leak from the factory caused her to pass out. She wasn’t the only victim. In 2010, Yahyawi, her husband, her siblings, and a group of other El Khadra residents sued the factory, demanding compensation for the health damage caused by the leak. The lawsuit resulted in a meager payoff: Residents got individual payments ranging from $500 to $2,000.

Yassine Barkawi, a lawyer who has represented more than 50 victims from El Khadra, including Yahyawi and her family, explains that all the cases he represented are related to specific leakage incidents, and that so far there have been no lawsuits for the other types of pollution caused by the factory. The hard part, according to Barkawi, is proving the connection between factory emissions and damage to the health of El Khadra’s citizens. Even if it’s proved that the factory is releasing toxic substances into the environment, it’s hard to demonstrate beyond a shadow of doubt that those same substances made people sick.

“Let’s say you have asthma,” he says. “How would you prove that your asthma has been caused by the factory? Maybe it’s genetic or related to something else. It’s hard to legally prove a causal link between those diseases and the factory.” A chronic lack of financial resources in the area means that there are still no scientific studies confirming any connection between poor health conditions in the area and emissions from the factory.

Air pollution is just the tip of the iceberg. This same plant used mercury in its manufacturing process from 1962 to 1998, releasing between 250 tons and 350 tons of the toxic chemical into the environment. Over the years, it has seeped into a local river, the Oued Andalou, where it has made its way into the region’s sandy soil and water table. Kasserine’s agricultural land and water table consistently show much higher levels of mercury than average, says Majed Hagui, an agricultural engineer serving as Kasserine’s regional environment representative.

Hagui says the high mercury levels in the environment have had disastrous effects on the fauna and flora of the region. When it enters the food chain, mercury can also lead to liver damage, harm to reproductive organs, and problems in child development. According to Hagui, measures to remove the chemical are desperately needed — but estimates put the cost of a “demercurization” process at 60 million dinars ($27 million). Tunisia’s cash-strapped government seems unwilling to devote much of its limited budget to the problem.

And mercury isn’t the only chemical substance that the factory has spewed into the Oued Andalou. The SNCPA also discharges liquid waste containing toxic and corrosive substances such as hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, and sodium hydroxide, which then flows into a nearby river that farmers use for irrigation. According to Mhamdi, the toxins are leaching into the soil in areas bordering the river. Because few farmers in the region are aware of the danger, they continue to use the contaminated water for irrigation. Exposure to liquid waste from the factory can cause kidney disease and gastrointestinal infections as well as interfering with human reproduction. “To sum up, the environmental situation in Kasserine is catastrophic,” Mhamdi says.

Mohamed Taher Saheri, a farmer from the Kasserine province of Laarich, says his farmland has been affected by the water pollution because it is bordered by the Oued Andalou. Even though he doesn’t use the river water to irrigate his trees, he said as many as 100 of his olive trees were damaged because of their proximity to the river. “My trees used to produce 300 kilograms of olives each,” Saheri says. “Now we harvest between 30 and 50 kilograms. They produce less every year. I even had to destroy some trees.”

Tunisian law stipulates that polluters must fix the damage they do to the environment. But a common problem, which also applies to the SNCPA, is that many industries are owned by the government. The post-revolutionary Tunisian government so far appears unwilling to allocate the funds needed to cleanse the environment of the toxic materials the factory has released over the past half century. The plant itself has been facing financial problems, which means that investing in safer disposal of toxic waste is low on its list of priorities.

Environmental engineer Morched Garbouj is president and co-founder of a Tunisian civic group, SOS Biaa, that targets environmental problems. He says the SNCPA factory was highly profitable until the late 1990s, but then lost its standing in the market because it failed to adjust to new technological developments in the paper industry. It should have been overhauled at the time, but no one in management was willing to undertake the necessary reforms. So the factory continues to rely on outdated infrastructure that is doing more harm that good.

“Its very existence there is dangerous,” Garbouj says. “It’s a ticking bomb. The more we wait, the worse it gets, and the harder it becomes to find a solution.”

He explained that the highly centralized decision-making process in local government is at fault. While local activists are often eager to find solutions, officials see few incentives to take action. “The government usually chooses to turn a blind eye to ecological issues, usually citing the need to create jobs and revive the economy,” Garbouj says.

The need to maintain jobs is vital in Kasserine, where the unemployment rate, at 26.2 percent, is more than 10 points higher than the national average of 15.4 percent. The SNCPA employs more than 500 people — meaning that locals are inclined to think twice before demanding that the factory move or shut down. Mhamdi says there are many potential solutions to the environmental problems caused by the factory that don’t have to involve closing it. Installing special filters could reduce up to 90 percent of toxic emissions into the atmosphere, while a water treatment station could neutralize toxins being released into the water. But there is no political will to tackle the problems.

“Our officials still don’t think of pollution as a problem,” Mhamdi says. “If you ask anyone what Kasserine’s problems are, they’ll probably say poverty and unemployment. But they’re wrong. Pollution is Kasserine’s top problem. If you want to respect human beings, respect them with clean water and clean food and not with jobs that hurt their health and destroy the environment.” 

Repeated phone calls to the company and the ministry of environment went unreturned.

Image credit: HYLTON WARBURTON for Foreign Policy

Read more from Tunisia: In Sun and Shadow:
Tunisia’s Glorious Confusion:The dawn of democracy is something to root for — but the forces that have pulled the other Arab Spring countries back into upheaval still threaten to undo its progress.
A Verdict on Change: This ambitious young judge wants to change Tunisia’s justice system. But he still has to type out his own verdicts.
The Storyteller: Shukrii Mabkhout is not just a novelist — he’s the biographer of modern Tunisia.
Missing the Old Days: Tunisia is a democracy. Here’s a man who still mourns for the old regime.
Not Arab, and Proud of It: Tunisia’s long-suppressed Amazigh minority is finding its voice for the first time in years.
The Tourism Crash: Terrorist attacks have left the sector reeling — but its problems actually go much deeper..
Crisis of Governance: Local Edition: In many ways, democratic Tunisia remains just as centralized as it was before the revolution. And that’s a big problem for the mayor of Kasserine.
Tunisia’s Dying Jazz: New freedoms have brought art and religion into conflict, threatening to crush a tradition trapped in the middle.
Trouble in the Wild East: The border town of Ben Guerdane is a haven for smugglers. Locals would like to keep it that way.
Terms of Abuse: On paper, Tunisia’s revolution has boosted legal protections for women. Yet the reality is starkly different.
Five Years of the New Tunisia: From revolution to disillusionment and back again: Milestones on Tunisia’s rocky path to democracy.
The Mainstreaming of Tunisia’s Islamists: The Ennahda Party’s latest moves put its political astuteness on show once again.
Tunisia’s War on Islam: Is overzealous prosecution of the war on terror contributing to radicalization?

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