A Mountain Village’s Fight for Clean Water Passes Four Seasons

Photo of Houaidia's villagers at their sit-in tent on the anniversary they began the protest on December 23, 2020. Photo by Hichem Ben Boubaker, republished with his permission.

Winter in the Kroumiria Mountains in northwest Tunisia is particularly harsh. Its white nights [Layali El Bidh]—an agrarian calendar period from December 25 to January 13 likely referring to the clear, starlit night skies—are long and freezing.

Despite the extreme weather and the region’s weak public services and infrastructure, Khemir tribes that gave their name to Kroumiria Mountains have managed to cope.

Nestled in the mountain range, the village of Houaidia is no stranger to hardship. Last winter, villagers began a battle against a quarry that has marred their mountainside and contaminated the underground water source —Ain Dhokkara—on which they depend. The four seasons have now passed; winter is back again and the Covid-19 pandemic dominates time like a season of its own, and still Houaidia continues its struggle for clean water.

Time for celebration

“A year is a long time, but we will stay as long as it takes,” Cherif Houaidi told Meshkal, on December 23, 2020, in a tent set up by protesters staging a sit-in on the side of the road leading to the quarry. Aged 77, the man said he was fighting for his children and grandchildren, pointing to his three granddaughters.

Houaidi’s granddaughters were dressed up for a celebration of the one-year anniversary of the protest. Lasting a year in the elements and against powerful adversaries—the quarry operator Habib Ben Aifa and the governor of Jendouba Ali Marmouri who villagers claim “colluded” with Ben Aifa—merited a celebration.

To mark these long months of resistance, there was no pomp. A procession of spontaneous speeches and a lot of enthusiasm from the dozens of activists and sympathizers who had come to support Houaidia’s cause were apparently enough to mark the occasion.

On that cold but sunny December day, the simple tent, pitched exactly a year earlier near the entrance to the stone quarry, seemed to stand in as a symbol for many different political struggles. The Tunisian flag flew on top of the roof. On three white, polyester banners stretched on the walls, four key articles of the 2014 constitution were printed in bold, blue letters: Article 13 states that “natural resources belong to the people of Tunisia;” Article 22 asserts the sanctity of the right to life; Article 44 guarantees the right to water, and Article 45 stipulates the state’s duty to “guarantee the right to a healthy and balanced environment.” On another side banner made of white cloth, the villagers wrote their main slogan in red paint: “The quarry is definitively closed by popular decision.”

Inside the tent, the women of the village shared their stories and told the history of the Ain Dhokkara water source to some of their guests.

Ain Dhokkara: bittersweet memories

When its crystal clear waters flowed unimpeded, Ain Dhokkara had enabled some sixty families to cultivate their small plots with all kinds of cereals and vegetables, locals recounted. The water was also used for drinking and for watering chickens, goats and sheep. The state owned and managed water distribution utility, SONEDE (by its French acronym), did not climb the green mountain to the village to build public water infrastructure, but villagers said this lack of public service did not bother them as long as they had their natural water source.

Villagers said they had not had to purchase much from outside of the village either. Thanks to the spring, affectionately known as “tender mother” [Al Omm Lahnina], they had all they needed: fresh water, healthy food, and peace.

According to their oral history, villagers guess that the first settlement by their ancestors in Houaidia began about two centuries ago. By their telling, life in the village hadn’t changed much since then until quarrying operations began in recent years. Birds tweeting, sheep bleating and the winds coming from the Mediterranean Sea composed the hymn of life in Houaidia.

But about fifteen years ago, that harmony vanished amid the roar of some strange visitors. Bulldozers and other construction vehicles occupied the mountain and started to slice stones out of it.  The intensive quarrying, the explosives used to fragment the rocks, and the vibrations of machines used to crush big rocks into smaller ones caused cracks in the walls of some houses, said the villagers. The dust invaded their soil and olive trees. And seven years ago, the color and taste of the spring water started to change.

The villagers then began their long battle against the quarry. They said their complaints to local authorities in Jendouba have gone unheeded, as have their complaints to the central government in the capital Tunis.

Support came from some civil society groups, including the water advocacy group Nomad 08, Jendouba’s section of the Tunisian League of Human Rights Ligue (LTDH, by its French acronym), a group of pro bono lawyers, the NGO Almayoun Rifiyya, and the national coordination to support Houaidia’s sit-in.

Help has come in many forms: regular visits, legal counseling, and exchanging experiences with other Tunisian communities affected by environmental injustice. On social media, mainly Facebook, sympathizers have been voicing support and encouragement to the villagers and some of the protest leaders such as Moncef Houaidi, Marwen Houaidi, and Chokri Houaidi.

Journalists at Inhiyez, the news website that broke the story about Houaidia’s protests in December 2019 used the Right to Access Information Law to unearth and publish official documents that serve as evidence that the quarry’s owneris violating laws.

A report prepared in November 2019 by the National Environmental Protection Agency, a bureau under the state’s Ministry of Environment, concluded that Ben Aifa’s quarrying company, Al Ittihad, alongside with another quarrying company working in the area, Al Chabab, committed numerous violations, such as quarrying beyond the expiration date of permits, dumping lubricants and other petroleum products on site, incinerating oil filters in operational areas, and exceeding permitted digging depths.

Proper disposal of quarry waste is mandated by law. According to the official specifications laying down the environmental measures which must be practiced in a quarry, the incineration of waste in the open air is prohibited. The same specifications document issued by the Ministry of Industry requires that the operator change the oils of their machines in special off-site facilities. Otherwise, the operator must collect these oils in containers reserved for this purpose and then deliver them to people specializing in the treatment of this type of waste.

Inhiyez commissioned a laboratory affiliated with the Ministry of Public Health in Monastir to conduct a physicochemical analysis of a water sample collected from Ain Dhokkara. That analysis showed that the spring water was no longer drinkable due to its high turbidity. As defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), turbidity “is the amount of cloudiness in the water. This can vary from a river full of mud and silt where it would be impossible to see through the water (high turbidity), to a spring water which appears to be completely clear (low turbidity)”.

According to the WHO guidelines for drinking water quality, “high levels of turbidity can protect microorganisms from the effects of disinfection, stimulate the growth of bacteria and give rise to a significant chlorine demand.”

On the legal front, claims and counterclaims

Despite this evidence, local authorities appear not to have been convinced by the villagers’ grievances. When interviewed on the national public TV station on March 7, 2020, governor Ali Marmouri claimed that the water was safe to drink. In support of his claim, he showed a letter he received from Jendouba’s commissioner of Public Health telling him the ministry undertook a bacteriological analysis proving Ain Dhokkara’s water was potable.

“The operator is in a private property and not in public domain. And if there are any impacts on the environment, protesters should know this is a legal matter and that they can take legal action,” he said.

But the villagers did not wait for the governor’s advice to file a lawsuit against the quarry operator and any authorities involved with him in violating their constitutional and fundamental rights to life, water, and a healthy environment.

The quarry operator Habib Ben Aifa responded by filing a lawsuit against the villagers and Inhiyez’s journalist Ghassen Ben Khelifa. He based his lawsuit on alleged violations of his freedom to work covered by Article 136 of the Tunisian Criminal Code which states:

Anyone who by violence, assault, threats or fraudulent maneuvers, provokes or tries to provoke, maintains or tries to maintain an individual or collective cessation of work, is punished by three years’ imprisonment and a fine of seven hundred and twenty dinars.

In addition to the sit-in outside the quarry that forced it to stop their operations—its permits to operate had already expired since April 2019 and so were in apparent violation of the law anyways—villagers entered the quarry on January 14, 2020, on the ninth anniversary of the revolution, and planted a rose bush there. While Cherif Houaidi dug the hole in the rigid soil with his aging hands, the children’s small fingers fixed the plant in its place.

Governor Marmouri followed quarry’s owner Habib Ben Aifa lead and also filed a criminal lawsuit against the villagers. This time, the claims were based on Article 125 of the Penal Code which states:

Is punished by one year of imprisonment and one hundred and twenty dinars fine, whoever, by words, gestures or threats is guilty of contempt of a public official during the exercise of his functions.

What did the villagers do to incur the governor’s anger? When they heard him denying the contamination of the water spring on TV, they protested in front of his headquarters in Jendouba. There, in an attempt to show the official the bare truth, they sprayed the walls with the spring’s murky and muddied water.

Houadia’s case: a typical SLAPP?

Lawsuits against Houaidia’s community and Inhiyez’s journalist appear to be textbook examples of SLAPPs. As defined by the International Center for Not-for-profit Law (ICNL), “SLAPPs which stand for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation are cases that are filed not to secure relief through the courts, but to use the risks and costs of litigation to discourage criticism or opposition. SLAPPs aim to turn the machinery of the courts against activists, journalists, and community members, using the superior resources of their filers to stamp out the exercise of fundamental freedoms by their targets.”

In a report published in July 2020, the ICNL studied 81 SLAPPs in the Global South that were similar to Houaidia’s case. These suits were filed by private interests and officials in countries such as India, the Philippines and South Africa against activists and civil society organizations (38 cases, or 46 percent); journalists and publishers (17 cases, or 21 percent); and leaders and members of local communities (15 cases, or 18 percent).

“44 of the cases in our sample, or 54 percent, arose outof environmental or environmental health advocacy, while 25 cases (30 percent) targeted labor and human rights advocacy,” wrote Nikhil Dutta, Global Programs Legal Advisor at the ICNL.

The report found that “typical legal charges” included defamation, business torts, judicial torts, conspiracy, constitutional-civil rights violations, and nuisance. It also studied the present and potential policy responses to SLAPPs.

The ICNL’s report also warned against SLAPPs’ harmful effects on the judicial system viability, on public policies that rely on public participation and on democratic debate.

“In defending against suits, SLAPPs targets incur financial and psychiccosts that often compel them to settle the asserted claims and stop engaging,”the report found.

“Aren’t you tired? Aren’t you afraid?” Meshkal asked Zahmoula Houaidi, the community’s matriarch.

“Never, I will always be with them, in every protest and every court hearing and we will never give up until we get back our mountain and save our beloved spring,” she replied.