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Tanning is an ancient art in Morocco, but it pollutes the environment heavily. Chouara is part of this tradition. It is one of the three tanneries in Medina and Fes that continues to use organic materials, a method that is dying out as modern tanneries use chemical processes. Waste products all go to the same place, the Sebou river system, which also gathers all the city’s untreated water and other local industrial waste.
“Most of the raw materials we use here are natural products, quicklime, grenadine, pigeon droppings, wheatbran, or tree bark,” says the Tanner’s Association President El Ghali Rahali.
The new generation tanneries are much dirtier, and have delocalised to the modern industrial outskirts. There are 58 today in Fes alone. Modern techniques have increased production, although purists scoff that tanning quality is not what it was with the traditional methods. The Sais tannery can process 2000 sheepskins a day.
“Here we work with sulphur, quicklime, sulphate, formic acid, sulphuric acid, and chrome; it’s a tanning revolution. In the past we needed between 40 days and two months to finish tanning a skin. Here we now need only two or three days,” says El Ghali Rahali.
Chrome-laden water from this tannery and 17 others like it in the Dokkarat district does not go in the river. Three kilometres of piping take it to Morocco’s first chrome removal plant, which opened in 2003. 50 cubic metres of water can yield around two and a half tonnes of recycled chrome.
“We can handle about eight cubic metres of water a day that come here from the Dokkarat tanneries.
This recycled chrome, once separated with sulphuric acid into a liquid form, is sold back to the tanners who can use it again. At four dirhams, or less than half a euro, it makes economic sense, too, as non-recycled powdered chrome costs between 11 and 13 dirhams a kilo,” says the director of the Sais tannery Mohammed Berrada.
The setting up of the chrome removal station is just part of a far more ambitious programme; to restore Fes’s sewage system and, between now and 2012, build a new sewage works. The project will cost 90 million euros, and should slash pollution going into the Sebou, one of Morocco’s dirtiest rivers.
Getting rid of the chrome first is vital, as it inhibits the treatment of sewage. Today around 40 tanneries still pump untreated waste into the Oued Sebou.
“Around 100 tonnes of chrome gets dumped in the Sebou every year. The chrome removal plant can only deal with around forty percent of this,” says the head of the Radeef cleanup operation Saidi Bouchra.
Eventually the plant should be able to deal with all of Fes’s tannery waste water, alongside the National Programme for Water Treatment, whose objective is to cut industrial and domestic water pollution by 60 percent by 2020.