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Tunisia’s only river is dying

The Medjerda. Copyright DrFO.Jr.Tn

On 1 January 2021, a decree signed in January 2020 by the Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed came into force, relating to the prohibition of the production, distribution, importation and possession of all types of single-use plastic bags. Every year, Tunisians consume nearly one billion plastic bags which participate in polluting the Medjerda, Tunisia’s only river with a constant discharge. 

A river in agony

The Medjerda, Tunisia’s only river, is in agony, polluted by human activities along the whole of its course of 350 kilometres from the north of the country to the Mediterranean Sea. Its waters are no more than a murky, thick liquid. The wadis are just as polluted as the river.

Historically a fertile land for developing agriculture and the cradle of many civilisations (Numidian, Punic and Roman), the Medjerda basin now represents the greater part of the country’s surface water reserves and irrigates 80,000 hectares of farmland. It continues to supply more than a third of the population with drinking water.  However, the quality of its water is falling constantly and the farmers of the region are faced with a terrible dilemma, that of irrigating the land to meet their needs while knowing that this water is gradually destroying the environment, ruining the trees, increasing the salt content of the soil and reducing it fertility.


Multiple pollutions


The pollution of the Medjerda mainly comes from the factories installed on its banks which have openly discharged their wastes into the river and its tributaries for years. Since 2018, discharges from factories have been officially acknowledged thanks to a study by the Tunisian Ministry of the Environment which concluded that “organic pollution characterised by a very high chemical demand for oxygen, oxygen depletion and high concentrations of phosphoric elements that generally exceed admissible thresholds” is clearly present in the river.

Combined, the discharges of urban and industrial wastewater are estimated at 60,000 tonnes of pollutants every year.

The Medjerda. Copyrigtht TamerSharkas.

Upstream, in the wadis, the wastewater treatment plants that treat domestic wastewater before its discharge into the river are undergoing complete overhauls following the discovery of a major problem: they were participating more towards the degradation of the Medjerda than towards its protection. The highest concentrations of faecal coliforms and streptococci were detected at Bou Salem, in the northwest of the country, near one of the largest treatment plants. Moreover, the effects of the absence of treatment infrastructures downstream are apparent. Since the towns have expanded at such a fast rate, the infrastructures proposed by town planners and the Tunisian administration have often not been installed sufficiently early.

The measures implemented


Confronted by the urgency of the situation, Alaa Marzouki, the Director of the Tunisian Water Observatory, pleads for a change of the legal framework

we have proposed a citizen’s water code that comprises the polluter pays principle. We also demand that the water is managed by a single entity to minimise the number of actors and avoid their non-accountability.”

According to him, an even more important task awaits Tunisia, that of changing mindsets, “in water, only figures are made visible, one cannot see it as a source of life”, thus pointing at practises in contradiction with preserving the river.

On 3 December, the French Development Agency in Tunisia launched “Biodev30” to contribute towards reconciling nature and development.

These initiatives are being taken at the same time as new beaches are being closed due to plastic pollution. A report published in June 2019 by the World Wide Fund for nature – WWF,  estimated that “in 10 years, all Tunisia’s beaches will be polluted by plastic”.

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