World Wetlands Day: farmers and young entrepreneurs from Tunisia acting for the conservation of their local wetland

On World Wetlands Day 2022, GWP-Med presents the stories of farmers and young entrepreneurs who live close to Ghar El Melh, one of Tunisia’s most precious wetlands. How and why did they decide to act to save this natural treasure? Was their effort worth it?

On February 2, for the first time, World Wetlands Day will be celebrated as a United Nations International Day, this year’s theme being ‘Wetlands Action for People and Nature’, emphasizing the need to act for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands for humans and the planet. 

The Ghar El Melh wetland, in the governorate of Bizerte in North Tunisia, was designated a Ramsar site in 2018, due to its high ecological importance. However, the wetland’s biodiversity and ecosystem are facing a number of pressures having a direct impact on local livelihoods.

The same year, the GEMWET project was launched aiming to protect the Ghar El Melh wetland and promote sustainable development in the local community. GWP-Med was responsible for two of its core activities: Smart Irrigation and Green Jobs, implemented with the support of WWF North Africa and the financial support of MAVA Foundation.

The application of Water-Energy-Food-Ecosystem WEFE Nexus approach in farming plots in Ghar El Melh

Water is connected to everything, even a farmer’s psychology” admits Mr. Sami Boulsayen who works at the Agricultural Development Groups in Ghar El Melh. Mr. Lofti Houki,  one of the six farmers who participated in the Smart Irrigation Activity agrees “Water is the most precious thing in life, and it will become more precious”.

The Smart Irrigation Activity aimed at providing the necessary tools and technical support to local farmers, in order to optimize the use of water for irrigation and achieve financial, but also environmental benefits. “The idea was to assist farmers in decision making” stipulates Mr. Ali Sahli, Professor at INAT, “regarding when and how much they should irrigate, depending on the crops.

“We now have a meteorological station which indicates the levels of humidity, atmospheric pressure, air temperature and precipitation. This will help us in irrigation management” further elaborates Mr. Chaouki Htiouech, who also participated in the activity.

The Water-Energy-Ecosystem WEFE Nexus approach that was used in these plots clearly bore fruits: water usage was cut by 44% and crop productivity increased by 66%. But what did the farmers think of the endeavour?

Mr. Lotfi Houki was highly impressed by his experience with the GEMWET project: The best thing in life is science and I am willing to adopt any new technology you provide”, he states. Ms. Zohra Naffef, a farmer herself and head of ULAP, the local union of farmers, acknowledging the beneficial results of the activity concludes: “We wish to benefit from further assistance and also spread the information.

3 young visionaries, determined to stay in the Ghar El Melh area, their homeland, and contribute to a green socio-economic model that embraces sustainability

Green Jobs was the second core activity of the GEMWET project, that was implemented by GWP-Med in partnership with WWF-NA, with a two-fold aim: to promote jobs that are environmentally friendly in order to protect the local wetland and also to curb youth migration.

Dr. Sondos Njoumi, Programme Officer, GWP-Med explains “These projects will contribute to the sustainable development of the Ghar El Melh wetland and will create much-needed new jobs for young people, inspiring more youth to cultivate new opportunities for themselves that also protect nature”.

For Ibtissem Aoidhi Consultant in QHSE Quality, Health, Safety and Environment, founder of the website PROACT, becoming part of the solution, was something she learned from her family. “I was raised in a family that believed in environmental protection so I was actively involved in environmental activities. As I grew up, I noticed in my community that waste was thrown to the streets and into the wetland…So one day I decided to act.” She set up an online platform connecting buyers and sellers of recycled products. “I am confident that my project will be successful”, she continues. “I believe it can be profitable and at the same time contribute to the ecosystem’s conservation.”

Amal Medimagh’s inspiration came from the wetland’s precious flora, and, as owner of Katra, an artisanal business that makes aromatic and medicinal essences, she decided to continue a local tradition practiced for generations: “My grandmother knew the art of distillation. She taught my mother and my mother taught me…. I am fascinated by plants and perfumes that is why the idea for the project came to me naturally.”

Also directly drawing on the Ghar El Melh wetland’s biodiversity, while also contributing to its ecosystem balance, Nourredine Jouini, is the owner of a farm that applies the permaculture principles. “The main activity is the production of organic and reproducible seeds. We want to create a seed bank in the farm and then we will be able to sell our seeds and plants.” He explains his rationale “I decided to take action to promote sustainable development… My project contributes to the conservation of genetic diversity especially of aromatic and medicinal plants.” Nourredine concludes: “a green socio- economic model can be developed which will help other young people and others to see agriculture differently: accessible to all, profitable and sustainable”

The ‘Conservation and Sustainable Development of Coastal Wetlands with High Ecological Value’ (GEMWET) Project aims to assist economic, socio-cultural and ecological development in the Ghar El Melh. It is a wetlands area known for its ecological and heritage richness (a Ramsar wetland and the first Arab and North Africa city to be recognised as Ramsar city), which, however, is facing a range of developmental pressures particularly under climate vulnerability and change impacts. Economic activities are mainly related to tourism, lagoon/coastal fishing and agriculture.

Applying principles of the Integrated Methodological Framework for Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) and Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM), the project aims at strengthening governance and local capacities for ecosystems’ monitoring and management; promoting the sustainable use of water resources; contribute fighting urban and industrial pollution; assist strengthening traditional farming practices; promoting responsible tourism; supporting the Ghar El Melh Coastal Development Programme; and engaging youth. With the support of the MAVA Foundation, the GEMWET Project is implemented under the lead of WWF North Africa and in partnership with BirdLife Europe, Association "Birds Friends", GWP-Med, UN Environment / Regional Activity Center of the Priority Actions Program (PAP/RAC), National Agronomic Institute of Tunis, Tour du Valat and IUCN.