Press output on the Agadir Symposium: Interviews of resource persons from the MENA region

At the International Symposium on Water and Wetlands in the Mediterranean held recently in the southern coastal Moroccan city of Agadir, experts from around the Mediterranean region gathered to discuss problems facing wetland ecosystems — and to try to find some answers. A large percentage the of audience came from Arab countries along the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean sea and they expressed the following views. Listen to the short radio show based on this article.

Nejib Benessaiah, co-ordinator of the Mediterranean Wetlands (MedWet) Initiative which organised the conference said the focus of the gathering is the conservation of wetlands, encouraging sustainable use of water and bringing awareness to younger generations. He added that the current political change taking place in the region could prove an opportunity to interest younger generations in conservation issues. “The idea is to use the economic and political turmoil our region is facing to redirect our work, and help tackle unemployment amongst our youth by given them the opportunity to become involved in conservation efforts in North Africa and the Middle East, especially concerning wetland areas,” Benessaiah said.

Participants were involved in a field visit to the nearby Souss Massa National Park. The park covers over 33,800 hectares and has a wide variety of eco-systems. This in turn allows a large number of different species of wildlife to flourish. As well as being rich in bio-diveristy of flora and fauna, the park is breeding endangered species and sending them to other counties along the northern shore of the Mediterranean. As Mohammed El Bekkay, Director of the Souss-Massa National Park, says, there are two distinct wetlands in the park and both have been recognised under the 1971 Ramsar Convention for the conservation of wetlands. “The national park of Souss-Massa was created in 1991. It is characterised by two river estuaries – the river Souss and the river Massa. So there are two wetlands classified by Ramsar since January 2005,” El Bekkay said.

Morocco has a significant number of wetlands that cover rural sites and well as coastal areas. One of the most spectacular is the bay of Dahkla in the south near its border with Mauritania. But in Morocco just as in the other Arab countries that fringe the Mediterranean, overuse of water, intensive agriculture and tourism pressures are all putting wetlands at risk.

Assad Serhal of the Lebanese Society for the Conservation of Nature says that the time-honoured system of “hima” — a system of environmental protection in Islam — is a way religion helps put across the message of water conservation. He said using religion to put across environmental messages was particularly effective in Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa region. “In our Arab and Muslim region, water is something very sacred. This is something that exists in all religions, and also in the Muslim religion, in the Qu’ran and under Sharia (religious) law, where polluting or wasting water is forbidden. This concept is stronger than (civil) law. There is awareness now of returning to our roots, through Hima (Islamic environmental protection), through the old system of water canals which still exist in some Lebanese villages, and which villagers are using for their purposes, in such areas as Anjar and Akkar in northern Lebanon,” Serhal said.

Sixty percent of the world’s population poor in water are in the Mediterranean region and the region provides thirty percent of the world’s tourism destinations, especially coastal regions. Little surprise then that some of the more advanced technology solutions are aimed at the Arab region. Kathrin Weise, project manager of satellite imaging company Jenaoptronik, says Arab countries and Jordan in particular are about to enter of new phase of wetland monitoring. “Within the next weeks we will forward the system and all the maps we develop to countries in North Africa and the Middle East. And then they take the maps and show to their partners and decision makers the increase of agriculture and show the buildings the increase of settlement. And for example Asraq. One of the Wetlands this is located in Jordan. The maps will be used to reconstruct the wetlands that disappeared in the 90s due to an overuse of the water in that area,” Weise said.

A film made by a group of Moroccan school children, and screened at the conference in Agadir, demonstrates in starkly, simple terms the pressures on almost every wetland site. And experts warn that unless governments step in it is unlikely that wetlands will be able to withstand external pressures such as increasing population, intensive agriculture and tourism development.

Mohammed Ribi, head of the Parks and Natural Reserves Department of the Moroccan High Commission for Water and Forests and the Struggle against Desertification states that it is difficult to match the arguments put forward by economic development projects. “There are countries that have made big mistakes with their coastal wetlands. And we are still trying through awareness campaigns and even through official mediation. Although the latter aren’t always balanced. Because people who come with development projects put forward figures talking about so many jobs, so many people employed. They speak of tourism, of the number of tourists that will come and foreign currency to be earned… That sort of thing. A lot of that type of aspect,” Ribi said.

In the Mediterranean region wetlands may once have been associated with bird-watching but today it won’t only be these winged users of water that will be wiped out due to water shortages.

Source: Sylvia Smith, BBC News   Listen to the short radio show based on this article.