October 2, 2019 / 4:37 PM / 16 days ago

Hit by wildfires and heat, Tunisia's youth join climate protests

TABARKA, Tunisia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Three years ago, as he sat at lunch at his cousin’s house in Tabarka, in northern Tunisia, Raslen Jbeli heard yelling and screaming outside.

When he stepped out the door, he saw the surrounding forest-covered hills were ablaze - and the fire was rushing toward the village.

“People were running. My mum was freaking out. She said it would be at our house in 30 minutes,” Jbeli told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The family fled, evacuated by firemen, and “all we could do was stay away and pray that the fire would not reach our home”, he said.

Ultimately their house was spared, but neighboring families were left homeless.

He later discovered that the number of wildfires in his region had ballooned from 37 in 2016 to 137 in 2017, amid drier conditions as farmers set fires to clear fields, according to Tunisia’s Civil Protection unit.

That firsthand experience with the surging risks posed by climate change is one reason Jbeli, now 17, has joined a growing global youth activism movement, intent on pushing a faster and more effective response to climate threats.

Jbeli last month added his name to a complaint brought by Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg and other youths around the world, who argued that the rights of children are being violated as governments fail to tackle climate change.

The complaint, filed as more than 60 world leaders met at a U.N. climate summit in New York, charged five countries - Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey - with not adequately cutting their climate-changing emissions despite being aware of the associated risks.

Jbeli, who attended the summit, also joined Thunberg and other youth activists in New York for a climate march that drew an estimated 4 million people around the globe.

“It was a big deal for me to feel like you are not alone,” he said.

PROTESTS AT HOME

In Tunisia - which is in the middle of presidential and parliamentary election campaigns - the September protests drew a smaller crowd, with about 50 to 60 young people gathered on the steps of the national theater to shout and wave signs.

Police have permitted the protests but do not allow the young activists to march into the streets.

Leading one of the events was 16-year-old Rima Rahmani, who co-founded Youth For Climate Tunisia with her classmate Mohamed Jawedi, 15, via social media and during lunch breaks at their high school in the central region of Kairouan.

The group’s first Friday strike, in March, drew only five participants.

“It was bad. It de-motivated us but we are hopeful,” Rahmani said in a telephone interview.

“Greta Thunberg started on her own, no one was with her, no one was supporting her but week after week people started to come. This is new in Tunisia, to skip school and fight for your future,” she said.

Rahmani, who hopes to study astrophysics when she goes to university, said she’s also seen the growing impacts of climate threats firsthand.

Just getting the bus to school, as the temperatures grow hotter, has become unbearable, even in the autumn, she said.

Swathes of her region also are suffering water shortages, she said, even as they are hit by occasional floods as well.

“We don’t have water and we have floods at the same time,” she said. “People have died from the floods, people lost their furniture, their houses were drowning in water.”

Last month, a 39-year-old woman died from an electric shock in a road accident near the city of Sfax after a day of torrential rain, according to Tunisia’s Civil Protection unit.

‘GO AND STUDY INSTEAD’

Rahmani’s fledging youth strike has met with some criticism. After organizing strikes and publicizing them on social media, she said she received comments online and in person from people urging the students to “go and study instead”.

“They say ... we don’t have the money to do renewable energy and all these massive actions to save the climate,” she said.

Some teachers and classmates also ridiculed her, she said - but she noted that her parents were supportive, and the social media page had received more than a thousand “likes”.

Tunisia signed the 2015 Paris Agreement to address climate change and the government has committed to increasing the amount of electricity it gets from renewables to 30% by 2030, up from 3% currently.

Pressure for the change has come from environmental organizations that have organized marches, awareness campaigns and actions such as beach clean-ups.

Climate change so far has not been a top priority for Tunisia’s government, said Essia Guezzi, a climate and energy project officer with WWF North Africa.

“The economic and social problems are more (pressing) than the climate issue because no one understands the link” between them, said Guezzi, who attended the first Friday climate strike in Tunisia.

But hotter temperatures, water shortages and more extreme rainfall threaten some of the mainstays of Tunisia’s economy, from farming to visitor numbers, she said.

“Climate change is contributing to the degradation of resources, agriculture, tourism,” she said. “Once decision makers understand and assess this economic impact, they can put climate change in the top priorities,” she predicted.

Rahmani is too young to vote in the elections this month but has called on the future government and president to take action on climate risks.

“We are trying to attract their attention and make them work on renewable energies, to ban single-use plastic and to declare a climate emergency,” she said.

Reporting by Layli Foroudi ; editing by Laurie Goering : Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate

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