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06TUNIS344 2006-02-16 08:22:00 UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY Embassy Tunis
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1. (SBU) Summary: The southern coastal town of Gabes is one
of the primary industrial zones in the country. While
chemical factories have provided jobs boosting the local and
national economy, resulting pollution has severely damaged
the local ecosystem and posed health risks to the population,
who express dismay that while the rest of Tunisia enjoys
significant tourism investment, Gabes has in essence become a
dumping ground for Tunisia's chemical industry. While the GOT
has in recent years conducted environmental assessments, and
is currently embarking on a EU/World Bank funded clean-up,
there is little chance that the industrial character of Gabes
will change. End Summary.

2. (SBU) Situated on the south-eastern coast of Tunisia,
Gabes is the 15th largest city in Tunisia, with a population
of approximately 120,000. Gabes is the only coastal oasis in
the world. In the past three decades, the region has seen
extensive industrial growth involving chemical/fertilizer,
cement and brick factories. Much of the local economy is
also driven by agriculture, including date palms, and olive
and fruit trees. Local residents are quick to point out that
there has been no government-assisted investment in a local
tourism industry, despite Gabes' beautiful coastline, and
location at a crossroads between the fertile north of Tunisia
and the southern desert. During a recent trip to the region,
numerous Gabesians, both working-class and intellectuals,
told Poloff that there had been a trade-off: that while the
rest of the country would be devoted to tourism, Gabes would
be a largely industrial site, in essence, a dumping ground
for Tunisia's dirty, but economically necessary chemical
industry. (Gabes is second to Sfax in industrial pollution

3. (SBU) Several interlocutors mentioned that, if lost to a
change in the town's vocation, the approximately 2,000 jobs
created by the chemical and cement/brick factories in the
Gabes area would easily be absorbed if the region's tourism
sector was developed. A former mayor of Gabes noted that
with "four or five nice hotels on the beach, all the chemical
factory workers would be employed." Gabesians pointed to
multiple negative side-effects of industrial pollution in the
Gabes area including fish kills and ecological damage in the
Bay of Gabes, water and air pollution, and significant health
problems among residents, such as elevated cancer rates and
skin, dental and intestinal problems due to excessive air
pollution. Poloff noted several Gabesians with pervasive
dark stains on their teeth, allegedly due to elevated levels
of flourine in the body from chemical production emissions.
However, according to to a 2001 report from the UN Industrial
Development Organization, measures taken to reduce air
pollution in Sfax and Gabes, including improved filtering
systems, resulted in a 65 percent reduction in sulfur oxide
and an 80 percent reduction in ammoniac discharge since the
late 1990s.

4. (SBU) Although air emissions from chemical plants have had
negative side effects on public health in Gabes,
international environmental groups have been more concerned
about the dumping of phosphogypsum, an acidic by-product from
phosphate fertilizer production, into the Gulf of Gabes. A
recent study by the Facility for Euro-Mediterranean
Investment and Partnership (FEMIP) and the World Bank
pinpointed the Gabes region as one of the most polluted in
the Mediterranean Basin. According to a Greenpeace study,
between 1970 and 1995 the state-owned fertilizer plants in
Gabes pumped more than 60 million tons of phosphogypsum into
the Gulf. A study by the University of Tunis found massive
levels of toxic or carcinogenic chemicals contained in
phosphogypsum such as lead, copper, and zinc that had been
dumped into the Gulf of Gabes since the early 1970s. The
level of cadmium, a heavy metal toxin, was 16 times higher in
1995 than the maximum allowed by Tunisian legislation.
According to Tunisia's former Greenpeace representative, the
toxic dumping led to "a warm, toxic, soup of heavy metals"
and a "dead-zone" of 20 square miles in the sea around Gabes.

5. (SBU) Under increasing international and domestic
pressure, in the late 1990s, the GOT announced new
initiatives to lower levels of pollution and conduct
assessment studies of environmental damage. In 2004, the
Facility for Euro-Mediterranean Investment and Partnership
(FEMIP) sub-division of the European Investment Bank signed a
EUR 45 million finance contract for a pollution abatement
project in the Gulf of Gabes. The project covers several
anti-pollution measures, in particular the management of
phosphogypsum. The waste generated will be transported in
solid form by train to an isolated land-based site where it
will be covered with an impervious layer of clay. Metering
and recording equipment will be employed to monitor
accidental seepage that may come from the landfill area to
ensure compliance with international environmental standards.
Also in 2004, the GOT and the World Bank agreed to
co-finance an intensive environmental assessment of the Gulf
of Gabes marine and coastal resources. This project will
"develop mechanisms for the integrated biodiversity
management of the Gulf of Gabes and identify long-term
institutional and technical resources required to reverse the
current trend of biodiversity degradation."

6. (SBU) Comment: Environmental woes were on every Gabesian's
mind during a recent reporting trip to the southern city
(reftel). Despite the local internationally-financed
clean-up projects, and a bold GOT national environmental
protection strategy aimed at corrective actions and
preventive initiatives, few people we spoke with in Gabes
gave the GOT any credit for sufficiently addressing the
problem. Only our GOT interlocutors in Gabes were aware of
the World Bank/EIB initiatives. Short of the closure of the
Gabes fertilizer plants, it is likely that many Gabesians,
who long for a clean, tourism-based local economy, will
remain discontent. Needless to say, with chemical production
representing 15% of Tunisia's exports, the Gabes chemical
industry will continue. The GOT has however recognized that
ignorance of the harmful environmental effects of this
industry in the past has led to significant and in many
areas, irreversible damage, and has begun measures to address
these problems. Continued vigilance and attention is
necessary should Tunisia hope to balance the often
conflicting goals of chemical production and environmental