Decline in phosphate production takes heavy toll on Tunisia’s economy

Sunday 03/07/2016
A 2012 file picture shows work at a phosphate mine in Metlaoui, southern Tunisia.

Tunis - The drop in phosphate ex­ports because of social unrest has deprived Tuni­sia of about $3.4 billion in recent years, the equiva­lent of 60% of the country’s foreign currency reserves, officials said.

“For more than five years since 2011 we only had six months of normal conditions for production. Our highest level of production was 40% of the output which we reached in 2010,” said Sadok Ben Othmane, the head of mining at the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Mines.

Tunisia’s phosphate output stood at 8.1 million tonnes in 2010 when the value of its phosphate prod­ucts was $1.4 billion. That amount dropped to $428 million in 2015. Tunisia expects $1.1 billion in ex­port earnings this year if phosphate output meets the forecast produc­tion of 6.5 million tonnes.

When phosphate production is at average levels in Tunisia, it exceeds 8 million tonnes yearly, making the country the world’s fifth largest phosphate producer.

Street protests over lack of jobs erupted in December 2010 in the south-western province of Sidi Bouzid and ended up toppling the 23-year rule of president Zine el- Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

Social unrest in the phosphate-producing region of Gafsa contrib­uted to slashing the phosphate out­put to 2.3 million tonnes in 2011, 2.6 million tonnes in 2012 and 3.1 mil­lion tonnes the following year.

The country expects phosphate output to increase this year to 6.5 million tonnes after totalling 3.2 million tonnes in 2015 and 3.5 mil­lion tonnes in 2014. Tunisia exports phosphate products to Europe, Asia and South America.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Es­sebsi cited the crisis in the phos­phate mining region as one of the country’s main challenges when he called for a unity government to re­place the four-party coalition head­ed by Prime Minister Habib Essid.

Central Bank governor Chedly Ayari warned the government may be unable to pay the wages of its employees next year because of the shortfall in fiscal revenues and other budget resources.

Phosphates produced in Gafsa are shipped by train to Gabes and Skhira on the east coast, where they are used for fertiliser and other de­rivatives.

“Sit-ins and blockades are con­tinuing,” said Ben Othmane.

There was some respite from the unrest during the second half of 2015, but it erupted again in the north-eastern town of Kasserine on January 18th.

“The only solution to the situa­tion is through dialogue. We need to join efforts with civil society or­ganisations, parliament members and other society influences to tackle the situation,” said Ben Oth­mane.

He said the phosphate produc­tion group plans to provide 3,380 jobs in the next three years, partly aimed at helping the region’s econ­omy and to curtail social anger and frustration.

“We can recover quickly with the good quality of our products and the strength of our sales force,” said Ben Othman.