Decentralized Waste Management in MENA Countries: Lessons from Tunisia

Djerba was spared much of the violence that roiled Tunisia during and after the 2011 revolution that led to the resignation of then-president Ben Ali. Famed for its sandy beaches, picturesque villages, and the coexistence of its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants, the island off Tunisia’s southern coastline remained calm while the rest of the country slipped into turmoil. But Djerba suffered anyway. Tourists steered clear of a country in revolution, causing the island to lose one of its most important industries. When authorities announced the reopening of the island’s landfill in 2012, it shattered the island’s serenity and prompted locals to take to the streets. Crowds gathered to denounce the decision, fearing that the landfill would pollute the island, affect the citizens health, and represent an additional deterrent to tourists. The protests turned violent.

In the aftermath of the revolution, Tunisians began to take aim at the country’s pollution problems as garbage piled up in the streets. Environmental activists have achieved notable victories, such as the inclusion of a clause in the 2014 constitution that enshrines the state’s duty to guarantee a healthy environment and to provide the means to eradicate pollution.

In addressing the garbage crisis and pursuing another commitment made in the constitution—a pledge to expand and accelerate the decentralization of power—Tunisia has embarked on a process of decentralizing decisionmaking in solid waste management (SWM). Tunisia’s experiment with decentralized SWM holds promise for other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, but it will not achieve its full potential unless the state provides local authorities with additional support.

Is Decentralized Decisionmaking for SWM the Solution?

Rapid urbanization and population growth have increased the amount of waste produced in MENA countries by 2 percent per year. Several countries in the region have realized their current systems of SWM are incompatible with their targets for sustainable development. As a result, these countries have decided to move away from traditional SWM systems to more integrated and sustainable approaches based on decentralized decisionmaking. Tunisia is one of these countries.

Tunisia’s experience of decentralized waste management started in 2018, when municipalities assumed responsibility for waste collection. The decentralization process has revealed several benefits. Local institutions, communities, and private companies have a better knowledge of the environmental, socioeconomic, and waste management problems of the area and are best placed to find sustainable solutions. Local actors have greater motivation to ensure the cleanliness of their city. Decentralized waste management also facilitates local participation and increases transparency in decisionmaking. Municipalities in Tunisia are now legally obligated to involve citizens in the decisionmaking process through their active participation in the municipal council, so marginalized communities gain a voice. Last, decentralization helps build local capacities in the sector.

However, the incomplete implementation of decentralization processes leaves municipalities highly dependent on financial support from the central state, which is often insufficient, and transfers of equipment, some of which are ill-suited to the needs of local communities. In particular, small and newly created municipalities in Tunisia still rely on the financial support of the Ministry of Local Affairs and Environment and need time to build financial independence.

The transition from centralized to decentralized systems of SWM is a long and complicated process for many reasons. Most of the newly created municipalities in Tunisia lack the infrastructure, logistical capabilities, human resources, and data to ensure adequate solid waste collection. As a result of these difficulties, some municipalities are still unable to adequately deliver the most important service for their constituents: waste collection.

Local authorities’ difficulties with SWM bring negative economic and environmental implications. Municipalities squander business opportunities in the field of waste management—particularly in collection and recycling—and poor SWM increases the costs of environmental degradation. There are political and social costs as well. Citizens’ dissatisfaction with environmental degradation and the economic costs of poor SWM has become an increasing driver of social protests, including on the island of Djerba. In addition, it can increase marine pollution and litter on beaches, with negative consequences for tourism in coastal areas.

From National Strategy to Local Action Plans

To address these issues, the Ministry of Local Affairs and the Environment developed an integrated strategy of solid waste management for 2020 to 2035. The strategy includes several specific targets in terms of waste prevention and management: reduce the amount of household and similar waste produced per inhabitant by 10 percent, increase the material recycling rate of household and similar waste to 20 percent, increase the quantity of household and similar waste subject to organic or energy recovery to 40 percent, and reduce the landfilling of municipal solid waste by 60 percent.

To achieve these national objectives, the strategy requires local authorities to clarify and strengthen their municipal waste management plans. But municipalities should not be expected to do that on their own. To strengthen decentralized SWM, municipalities require the support of various other actors.

Central authorities must communicate the national objectives clearly to municipalities and also provide the necessary financial resources and expertise, particularly at the beginning of the process, so that municipalities can implement local plans and align them with the national strategy’s objectives.

Some municipalities are helping each other. Various municipalities have created inter-municipal bodies to ensure organizational and financial cooperation to improve waste management services and reduce operational costs. Additional opportunities for inter-municipal collaboration are still under discussion, including a promising initiative between Sidi Bousaid, Carthage, and Marsa municipalities in northern Tunis to establish an intercommunal composting plant.

Last and not least, local authorities should assimilate their constituents into the decisionmaking process. Doing so is critical to both reducing opposition toward waste management plans the municipality devises and ensuring the plans meet constituents’ needs.

Ensuring Sustainable Organization and Financing Systems

To manage the large amount of solid waste generated in the MENA region, governments should develop an integrated and sustainable system of solid waste management. The SWM process includes a range of activities, such as waste collection, transfer and transport, treatment, disposal, and cleaning, and must be supported by a clear legal, organizational, and institutional framework. The empowerment of the financial and human resources represents an important asset toward achieving local and national goals.

To improve the sustainability of the system, plans should clarify the responsibilities of different actors, ensure the monitoring and evaluation of the operational services, and involve the private sector by ensuring fair competition between private companies’ service providers and between the public and private sectors.

Plans should also provide incentives for private sector actors to reduce their waste. Many MENA countries have adopted the “extended producer responsibility” principle for packaging waste, following the examples of Tunisia, Jordan, Morocco, and Egypt. These countries extend the responsibility of producers that introduce packaged goods to the market to take organizational and financial responsibility for their packaging. The extended producer responsibility policy should involve all the stakeholders in a product’s overall value chain, from the extraction of the raw material to its valorization. This policy would ensure sustainable waste management according to the circular economy model.

Tunisia’s experience shows that the transfer of decisions to local government is a promising approach that should be reinforced to improve the SWM sector in the MENA region. However, strategies relating to solid waste management, circular economy, and plastic management must be harmonized, and the national plan and targets should be well defined. Increasing regional cooperation by ensuring a sustainable exchange of experiences, information, and best practices between MENA countries and municipalities is critical to achieving more sustainable SWM.

Dr.-Eng. Wassim Chaabane is a waste management and marine litter expert, with several years of experience working across Europe and in the Middle East. He is a member of the CSIS Middle East Program’s Working Group for the Sustainable States project.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Dr.-Eng. Wassim Chaabane

Waste Management and Marine Litter Expert