AGAREB, Tunisia (AP) — New clashes broke out Wednesday between residents and police in the Tunisian city of Agareb, home to a landfill that has provoked public fury over waste mismanagement.
Agareb hosts the main landfill for nearby Sfax, Tunisia’s second largest city. Local residents have long advocated the closure of El Qena landfill, citing health and environmental concerns.
Authorities decided to close the landfill in September — but had no alternative plan in place, causing thousands of tons of waste to accumulate in streets and public spaces for over a month. Residents took to the streets last week, saying the government was violating their basic rights.
Then Monday, authorities abruptly reopened the landfill, prompting new protests over mismanagement and the lack of a longer-term solution.
Police fired tear gas and protesters erected barricades. One man was reported to have died after he was hit by a tear gas canister; though Tunisia’s Interior Ministry said he suffered a fatal heart attack at home.
The Tunisian army was deployed Tuesday to secure government institutions after protesters set a National Guard headquarters on fire. New protests and clashes broke out Wednesday. Local labor unions called a strike.
“The mayor has to think in advance of a place to put the garbage and not leave it until it piles up and then say that he did not find a place for it,” said resident Mohamed Kefi. “We have had more than 40 days of this pollution in the middle of residential neighborhoods.”
Environmental activist Salem Cheari pointed at flies swarming round stinking mounds of garbage by the road. Cheari for years advocated the closure of El Qena landfill. However the garbage buildup led him to feel that the landfill should reopen until a solution is found.
“We have waited ten years, and there is no shame in waiting for another two months. We must cooperate in taking responsibility. If the state breaks its promises, after two months, I will join the demonstrators,” says Cheari.
Tunisia’s Environment Ministry said in a statement that El Qena had been reopened “to reduce health, environmental and economic risks.” It promised an immediate cleanup of the streets and restructuring of the waste disposal system.
The latest troubles pose a challenge for President Kais Saied’s new government as the country finds itself in the midst of a political crisis. Saied froze parliament in July and took on sweeping executive powers in what his critics have called a coup.
Francesca Ebel in Tunis contributed.
Mehdi El-arem, The Associated Press