Fisherman in Ghar El Melh, Tunisia. Photo: © MedWet/C.Amico

Past, present and future: Mediterranean wetlands in everyday life 

The relationship between humanity and wetlands stretches back into prehistory. Archaeologists believe people began to settle in wetland areas of Mesopotamia around 10,000 BC, and since then wetlands have played a central role in our survival as a species. The Mediterranean way of life itself was born in coastal wetlands: from fishing to agriculture, people have lived through the resources provided by wetlands.

But do wetlands still impact our everyday life today? The short answer is yes: more than a billion people globally make a living directly from wetlands, and the rest of us couldn’t get by without the services they provide, especially coastal wetlands: they store and provide clean water, provide defences against floods and droughts, and are the most effective carbon sinks on the planet.

Some wetland areas have been in constant use for thousands of years, and remain so today. One particularly interesting living example of a historically important Mediterranean wetland is the Ghar el Melh lagoon complex, 30 km southeast of the town of Bizerte in Tunisia. First settled by the sea-going Phoenicians for its strategic importance as a port, the area was later conquered by – among others – the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans and French, and today it continues to provide vital ecosystem services to the people living there as well as a haven for biodiversity.

Ghar El Melh, Tunisia. Photo: © MedWet/C.Amico

The Ghar el Melh wetland area spans over 15,000 ha and includes a range of habitats from forest and maquis to scrub, saltmarsh, dunes and agricultural land. The lagoon itself – designated a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance – supports artisanal fisheries and traditional farming. The latter uses a method known as ramli or guettayas – with parcels of reclaimed land appearing to ‘float’ on the surface of the lagoon, irrigated by the thin layer of freshwater that sits on top of the brine. In 2020, FAO recognized it as a ‘Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System’.

Guettayas in Ghar El Melh, Tunisia. Photo: © MedWet/C.Amico

Ghar el Melh is among Tunisia’s most precious coastal heritage. It was the first North African and Middle Eastern city to receive Ramsar’s Wetland City Accreditation Award, in recognition of its formal engagement in efforts to support wetland protection and sustainability, and the area is drawing increasing numbers of visitors as it becomes better known.

But despite Ghar el Melh’s acknowledged importance, there’s darker side to the picture. Like so many other important wetland areas across the Mediterranean, it’s facing significant threats from pollution, uncontrolled tourism development, drought and excessive water abstraction.

Pollution in Ghar El Melh, Tunisia. Photo: © MedWet/C.Amico

“Our activity is 100% dependent on rainfall and tides,” says Mohamed El Mabrouk, a traditional farmer from Ghar el Melh. “These two factors are reduced, and they are going to be reduced even more. But why should we invest in irrigation, when we have natural irrigation? The problem is that we need to protect it.”

For the first time in history, the lagoon’s future is in doubt and urgent action is needed to save the ecosystem from the growing pressures on its natural processes. That’s why the MAVA-funded GEMWET project was launched in 2018, led by WWF-North Africa in partnership with a coalition of international and local organizations. GEMWET worked to develop a model of governance for Ghar el Melh to reconcile development challenges while safeguarding the natural capital of the region and the sustainable use of its water resources, with a long-term goal of fairly sharing the socioeconomic benefits they offer – including employment and income opportunities – among local communities.

The first part of the project involved extensive and detailed scientific research: what was really going on in the wetland ecosystem, what factors were affecting conditions, and how could their effects be mitigated? A number of assessment reports were completed and made available to stakeholders on a multilingual open-source basis, while the lagoon’s ecosystem services were surveyed using the TESSA tool, and habitat monitoring protocols were agreed and put in place.

The data gathered during these exercises provided the basis for strategic planning across the board. An engineering firm was commissioned to explore sustainable solutions to water flow and quality. Hydrological monitoring helped farmers to make the ramli activities on their lagoon islets more efficient: water usage for irrigation was cut by 44%, while crop productivity increased by 66%. Meanwhile, a hazard zone around Ghar El Melh was defined, in order to improve understanding of the vulnerability of the wetlands to climate change, and to explore how best to mitigate its impacts while sustaining dependent community livelihoods.  

Along with a broad focus on green youth employment and sustainable tourism, GEMWET provided technical and financial support to a group of 12 local entrepreneurs for sustainable businesses in areas including waste recycling, organic agriculture, hydroponics, medicinal wetland plants, and sea and lagoon fisheries. To date, four start-ups have been successfully launched as a result.

As a general principle, the more people know about wetlands, the more likely they are to want to protect them, so GEMWET included an important public-facing component. Events, training and social media activities reached more than 20,000 people, raising awareness of the importance of wetland conservation, as well as to promote the project and celebrate its successes.

GEMWET will officially end in 2022, but the understanding the project generated and the initiatives it launched continue to have an impact in Ghar el Melh today, and they look set to play defining roles in its future too. If these vital Mediterranean wetlands receive the care and respect they deserve, there’s every reason to believe they’ll stay an integral part of everyday life for thousands of years to come.