The Curse of Phosphates: Behind the Scenes of Chemical Agriculture – a Polluted Wasteland

by Nathalie Crubézy, Simon Gouin, Sophie Chapelle

The intensive use of phosphates in French and European agriculture depletes the soil, pollutes rivers and gives rise to the uncontrollable growth of green algae. But where do phosphate-based fertilisers used in rural France come from? We investigated the phosphates industry all the way back to its extraction and processing in Tunisia, which has long been one of Europe’s main suppliers. The environmental, health and social effects are dire – disease, marine pollution and an oasis turned into a desert, to name just a few. Are phosphates really a farmer’s best friend?

Originally published in French.

On the beaches of Finistère, on the Brittany Coast in France, green algae has been growing uncontrollably since late May. Almost 3000 kilometres away, on the Tunisian coast, the residents of the city of Gabès are experiencing serious air, water and soil pollution, and fear their coastal oasis will never again resemble what it once was. What have these two situations got in common? Phosphates.

Phosphate fertilisers are widely used in Europe, as a source of phosphorous, nitrogen, calcium and aluminium. Initially used in its organic form (manure or compost), phosphorous is increasingly found in European farmland in its synthetic form. [1]

If the consequences of the overuse of phosphate fertilisers are already evident in France and Europe [2], what is happening upstream? We traced the production process back to Tunisia where the production and processing of phosphate constitutes, along with tourism, one of the country’s main sources of income. Tunisia was the 5th biggest global producer until 2010 (4% of the country’s GDP and 10% of exports). [3] For a decade it was one of Europe’s three main suppliers of synthetic fertilisers, along with Morocco and Russia. [4] Now facing social unrest, the Tunisian phosphate industry is in decline. The protests and strikes that are paralysing it are not unrelated to the environmental and health effects of phosphate processing and production – and of decades of carelessness.

Where did the water from the oasis go?

To get a better idea of the environmental impact of phosphates, you need to go to Gabès, 450 kilometres south of Tunis. The grey city sits on the Mediterranean coast and is surrounded by palm trees, fruit trees and market gardens; a 170-hectare seaside oasis where salt water and fresh water meet. Yet in March there were only a few shallow rivulets at the bottom of the valley. Apparently this was not unusual. “Natural water sources dried up years ago,” explains Mabrouk Jabri, a retired teacher. “Now we have to drill for water,” adds Abdekhader Béji, a farmworker.


So what happened to the water that used to make this oasis a little heaven on earth? All evidence points to the Tunisian Chemical Group (TCG). In 1970, the state-owned enterprise set up shop on the shores of the gulf of Gabès. Each year, around four million tons of phosphates are processed to produce fertilisers and detergent, 90% of which is then shipped to Europe or elsewhere. A small proportion of ammonium nitrate fertiliser is used locally. Phosphate processing requires water – a lot of water: it takes 7-8 cubic meters to produce a tonne of phosphoric acid, i.e. the contents of more than 50 bathtubs. “Since the TCG came on the scene, the water in the oasis has gone down dramatically,” says Skandar Rejeb, a university professor and member of the “Association de sauvegarde de l’oasis de Chenini” (Association for the Protection of the Chenini Oasis – ASOC).

Archive photo of the Tunisian Chemical Group:

Photo of the TCG, March 2015:

Farms in the oasis have been hit hard. It is increasingly difficult to grow crops, particularly in the summer when the farmers have to wait two and a half months before they can irrigate their crops. “Before it used to be more like 10 to 15 days,” says the teacher Mabrouk Jabri. As fresh water is drying up, there’s more salt water, which is damaging crops. There is loss of biodiversity. “Tree species such as apple, peach and apricot trees, which we used to see everywhere, are gradually disappearing,” says Abdekhader Béji. Given the tough conditions, young people are gradually turning away from farming. “The oasis used to be a place where each family farmed their own plot of land. Now all the traditional knowledge and know-how is disappearing.” In 1970 the oasis was 750 hectares wide, it is now only 170 – somewhat ironic given that phosphates are being used to increase crop yields on the other side of the Mediterranean!

Archive photos of the oasis:

Photo of the oasis today:

“The sea is sick”

Agriculture in the region is not all that has been affected by the Tunisian Chemical Group. Trawlers are moored at the shore. Only small boats leave the port now. There is little activity in the harbour. “Before the factory, the Gabès gulf was a paradise for fishermen; it was the Mediterranean’s breeding ground,” explain Abdelmajd Ghoul and Fathi Fetoui, two ship-owners. “90% of fish have gone. The sea is sick.” Again, fingers are pointed at the TCG: Every day the industrial group dumps approximately 13,000 tons of phosphogypsum-drenched sludge, one of the by-products of manufacturing phosphate fertilisers. “The seabed is covered in sludge,” say fishermen. “There’s not enough oxygen, so the seabed has turned into a wasteland. The fish don’t get enough food. And when the sun hits the water, it creates a chemical reaction between the sludge and the water.”

The factory is directly to blame for this environmental disaster. The black sludge trickles out throughout the day, flowing into the Mediterranean. One of the two ship-owners used to employ 15 sailors. Now there are only seven. The consequences are disastrous for fishermen. Fish can now only be found much further out at sea, towards the north and the city of Sfax. But this requires more fuel, which increases costs. Due to job shortages, fewer fishermen are entitled to social security. Some have sold their equipment; others continue fishing, regularly repairing their nets that get stuck in the yellowish glue that lines the seabed. Added to these issues is also that of large trawlers overfishing, inadequately monitored by authorities.

More disease than elsewhere?

The fishermen of Gabès are not the only ones that have disappeared. Its beaches are deserted and the tourists have gone. The fumes from the plant and the sulphur smell, which can make the city air unbreathable, have had their effect on tourism. The deterioration in air quality is a major cause for concern for the locals. The emissions from the TGC plant are thought to cause cancer and cases of fluorosis, an illness from which Moekles, a young IT engineer is suffering. “My bones ache and break easily,” he explains. “I have to be very careful with what I do.” Moekles’ doctor didn’t make the link between his disease and the factory’s fluorine emissions. But Moekles’ symptoms are not uncommon.

Foued Kraiem, chairman of the Tunisian Association for the Environment and Nature, is closely monitoring the impact of the phosphate industry. He feels there is a disproportionate amount of disease in Gabès, including cancer. “In some families, several people are sick,” he remarks, also mentioning lung diseases such as allergies or asthma. Those affected are forced to go to Sfax for treatment - a two and half hour drive away - as Gabès doesn’t have the required hospital facilities. “We are asking for a real epidemiological study on 3000 families," says Foued Kraiem. Such a study would finally ascertain the degree to which the phosphate processing plant is responsible. And counterbalance the enormous economic weight it represents not only in Gabès, but over the whole of Tunisia.

“The most profit at the least cost”

In the region of Gabès, the factory officially employs around 4000 people. In 2010, the TGC achieved a turnover of 2.1 billion euros, which fell to about 700 million euros in 2012 and 2013 due to strikes (see below). [5] In spite of this regression, the factory represents an enormous honeypot for Tunisia, a real economic powerhouse . . . Yet the long-term consequences are disastrous.

“When the phosphate factory was built, our parents were happy because it meant there would be work,” recalls Mabrouk Jabri, the Chenini-based teacher. Forty years later, the results are catastrophic. Not only has the TGC failed to make any investment in the region’s social development, but it has destroyed the environment. “The factory wants to make the most profit at the least possible cost,” says Mabrouk Jabri. “The whole region is a cultural wasteland, not to mention the health problems. The TGC could at least use the millions that it makes every day to address these problems.”

Since the Tunisian revolution, freedom of speech has been wielded and targeted at the factory, which was previously politically off-limits. Organisations are cropping up all over the place, and people are taking action. In 2011, Gabès fishermen blockaded the GCT trade terminal for twelve days, pushing to stop waste being dumped into the sea. The young people of Gabès took part in the World Social Forum, held in Tunis in March 2015, in order to raise awareness of environmental pollution. Civil society organisations and representatives are now involved in negotiations with the TCG. “Before the Revolution, it was impossible to enter into any kind of discussion with the company,” recalls Mabrouk Jabri.

A mix of denial and greenwashing

The Tunisian Chemical Group is now willing to talk to journalists. They have even hired an environmental manager: Noureddine Trabelsi. The different products manufactured by the company are displayed in the meeting room: phosphoric acid, phosphate fertilizers, feed additives, etc. “We are aware of the environmental issues, both the air and sea pollution,” he states. “But we are injecting seven million dinars into the local economy. We are fuelling Gabès’ economy!” Confronted with criticism, the group has stated that it will carry out “environmental upgrades” on the production site. Noureddine Trabelsi rattles off the millions of dinars being invested in new technology to reduce ammonia and nitrous oxide emissions by 2015. The group even hopes to “get rid of the sulphide smell,” the unpleasant-smelling gas that intermittently invades the streets of Gabès. They promise that although the emissions will still be present, they will be significantly less noticeable . . .

Although the group admits dumping phosphogypsum into the sea – five tonnes of phosphogypsum to produce just one tonne of phosphoric acid! – it denies its role in the degradation of marine life. However, it acknowledges that phosphogypsum pollution can have an impact on fishing, “reducing yields”, but it claims that “the real culprits are the big fishing boats that exhaust stocks”. They also accuse France. “The first factory was set up in 1972 by SPIE Batignolles (French construction group – editor’s note), which began discharging pollutants,” recalls Noureddine Trabelsi. “At the time, France was dumping phosphogypsum into the Seine before it was banned in the late 1980s. People were unaware that it was a pollutant . . .” But ignorance is no longer enough to assuage the anger of locals.

Shifting the problem

At the back of the room, a huge map of the coast highlights the company’s plans. “We’re going to build six pipelines, 23-kilometres long, which will take the phosphogypsum sludge elsewhere,” explains Noureddine Trabelsi. The project, which is backed by the European Union, initially aimed to store the sludge in Ouedref, a village twenty kilometres out of Gabès. “We planned to store it, with a geomembrane, but the locals said no. We have just put forward two other potential sites to civil society.” In addition to groundwater contamination fears, are those concerning the sludge’s radioactivity. “Things have become difficult with the Revolution. The locals don’t want the waste where they live. Yet everyone wants to be hired by our company.”

The TGC also rejects any responsibility for the depletion of aquifers. “Our company consumes 6% of Gabès’ water. Water scarcity is due to agriculture – it consumes 80% of the water supply,” claims the company’s environmental manager. He was, however, unable to provide any studies on the subject. One thing is certain: the group’s water consumption has gone down over recent years due to production dropping by half. [6] “We are encountering difficulties with our phosphate supply. There are social issues in the Gafsa mining area, where the phosphates are extracted. We’re hoping the situation will improve . . .”

“The forgotten victims of phosphates”

The rail line that runs along the Gabès industrial complex leads to the Gafsa mining basin, 150 kilometres to the west. This is where the phosphates are extracted before being sent to Gabès for processing. Again, the phosphates industry (state-owned company CPG [7]) that is the region’s primary employer. The company is one of the biggest phosphate producers in the world (8 million tonnes in 2010). But it has virtually stopped hiring. [8]

“With modernised extraction techniques, the CPG needs less and less workers,” says Taoufik Ain, from the Investment and Development Mining Association (Association du bassin minier pour l’investissement et développement), located in Moularés. “They had 15 000 employees in 1980, now they only have 5 000.” “In 2014, losses, acerbated by a fall in phosphate prices – which began in 2012 and which, according to the World Bank, could continue until 2025 – reached 20 million dinars (8.8 million euros),” reported the newspaper Jeune Afrique.

Dynamite, dust and cancer

In the southwest region, unemployment stands at 29%. On top of social despair are the health problems. “The dust causes respiratory diseases and cancer. People also have issues with their teeth due to the fluoride in the water. Bones break easily.” As there is no hospital is Gafsa, locals are forced to travel to Tunis or Sousse. Locals have also noticed a depletion in groundwater reserves. “It’s impossible to grow anything with this waning water supply.”

“The issue is not phosphates, but the way they are extracted,” says Zaybi Abdessalem, from the association Mlal Environnement. “It’s done using dynamite. The tremors are felt everyday at noon. They shake the houses, causing cracks in those within a 1-2 kilometre radius. The more phosphate extracted, the more explosives used – and the more dust spread throughout the region.” In order to prevent the dust from spreading, phosphate should usually be moistened during transportation. “As they are trying to gain time and money, they don’t do it. In Morocco, even though they extract double the amount of phosphate, they comply with the standards. Here they just want to sell more – they don’t give a toss about our health!” For four years, the “forgotten victims of phosphates” have been taking a stand, in a drumbeat of strikes and protests (See the trailer of Maudit soit le phosphate [“The Curse of Phosphates”], a documentary on the strikes and repressive measures).


Time for “polluter pays” in Gabès and Gafsa

Is it possible for such an industry, even if it makes a few tweaks here and there, to be environmentally friendly? Local civil society leaders believe that it can. “The water that is used to wash the phosphate could be recycled at least twice to wash other rocks,” states one of them. What they really hope, though, is that a portion of the money from the phosphate industry will be reinserted into the region and its development, and go towards healthcare or education. “We have a right to live in a clean mining area. Either they respect the law or the company’s license should be revoked!”

In Gabès, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) is calling for the “polluter pays” principal to be implemented. “The whole thing is imbalanced when a sector generates a lot of money but also does a lot of damage. Nothing has been done since the seventies. We have a low standard of healthcare. Locals are forced to go to Sfax or Sousse for treatment. Despite Tunisian legislation, no impact assessment has been carried out.” The Union is also asking for support for the region’s social and economic development.

Change the development model

The locals are no longer waiting passively for the chemical company to do something. They are rallying together to save the Gabès oasis, building water retention structures, helping farmers get set up, developing solidarity tourism and marketing local goods. Together they are showing that another kind of development is possible in the region. But without water, will they succeed?


At the other end of the chain, in France and Europe, phosphate fertilisers are part of the cause for the general deterioration in the environmental situation. How long will it take to put some limits on a system that is detrimental to both the environment and our health – a system in which the region’s residents and farmers are trapped? It’s going to take a whole lot more than just limiting phosphates in household dishwasher powders and detergents . . .

Simon Gouin and Sophie Chapelle
Images / footage: Nathalie Crubézy / à vif(s)
English translation : Susanna Gendall

- Green algae #1 CC Cristina Barroca
- Green algae #2: CC TheSupermat

Photo coverage from the project "Time for change: Promoting sustainable production and consumption of raw materials” carried out by Aitec, in collaboration with Attac, Bastamag and the à-vif(s) photo collective.

[2Excessive concentrations of phosphate in water bodies can result in eutrophication of slow flowing rivers, lakes, reservoirs and coastal areas. This manifests itself through a proliferation of blue-green algae, reduced light penetration, depletion of oxygen in surface water, disappearance of benthic invertebrates, and production of toxins which are poisonous to fish, cattle and humans. Source.

[3China, Morocco and the USA alone account for two thirds of global phosphate production, see U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2015. Source.

[4The World Phosphate Market, What Risk for the European Union, Inra, Juin 2014 (see here).

[6“The amount of phosphates produced in Gabès used to be as high as 3.9 million tonnes per year,” says Noureddine Trabelsi. “The current production rate is two million tonnes.”

[7CPG, the Gafsa Phosphate Company, is a state-owned company, which merged in 1994 with one of the leading industrial groups in Tunisia, the Tunisian Chemical Group (also state-owned).

[8In 1985 the Tunisian government implemented a strategic reform plan entitled “CPG Rehabilitation Plan”. Financed by loans from the World Bank and the African Development Bank, the plan provided for production mechanisation, cost-cutting measures and downsizing. See reports available on the African Development Bank website.