Tunisia and its Wetlands
(3 February 1997)
During the week of 19-26 January 1997, the Bureaus Senior Policy Advisor, Michael Smart, paid an official visit to Tunisia, organized in cooperation with the Ramsar Administrative Authority, the Ministry of Agriculture (General Department of Forests), but also involving discussions with many other administrations and organizations. He attended a number of official meetings, spent some time (not enough!) in the field visiting wetlands, and filed this report on his return. A more detailed formal report will be submitted through official diplomatic channels to the Tunisian authorities.
MedWet project: Mr Smart brought back the contract for the LIFE project [for extending the MedWet intiative to five new countries] funded by the European Commission, signed by the Forestry Department. The first draft of the national summary of wetlands is available, and he has been asked to comment on it. The project will be carried out in close cooperation between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Tunisian WWF project office, with technical input from the Tour du Valat Biological Station in the Camargue. While the Forestry Department will retain ultimate responsiblity, WWF will deal not only with day-to-day financial management, but with overall execution of the project as well. The project involves a national wetland seminar, to be held in Sousse in May, and development of a pilot project on wetland management and public awareness at one of the most important Tunisian wetlands, Lake Kelbia, near Sousse.
Lake Kelbia: This is a lake on the edge of the pre-desert steppe, which dries out completely in dry years, but is important for groundwater conservation and, in wet years, for flood control and waterfowl. After the wet winter of 1995/96 there was enough water to last through summer 1996, and the lake currently holds vast and impressive numbers of waterbirds, of the order of 50,000 ducks, 10,000 flamingos, and 800 spoonbills. A study had been commissioned by the Tunisian authorities to look into the possibility of draining the lake (which is already affected by dams on three of the inflow rivers), but in discussions with the Ministry of Agriculture's principal official in Sousse, Mr Smart was assured that the study would be revised to take account of environmental issues and to maintain the lake and its functions. Ramsar designation will be considered.
Census of wintering waterfowl: Mr Smart joined local officials and ornithologists at winter waterfowl counts at certain sites. This year was particularly important because of the cold weather in Europe, which is likely to cause waterfowl to flee frozen European wetlands and seek refuge in warmer sites in North Africa. North African wetlands depend on the annual winter rainfall; after a very wet winter in 1995/96, which produced excellent conditions and a bumper agricultural harvest, winter 1996/97 has so far been disappointingly dry, though there was quite heavy rain all over the country on 25/26 January, which may have saved the 1997 harvest. Kelbia, as mentioned above, held good numbers of waterfowl, as did Ichkeul (over 100,000 ducks and coot, but only 2,500 geese whereas up to 20,000 might have been expected). Mr Smart also visited the Cape Bon artificial reservoirs, known to hold small numbers of the highly endangered White-headed Duck. There he found only nine individuals, among large numbers of other ducks of Europan origin.
Situation of Lake Ichkeul: Ichkeul is Tunisia's only Ramsar site and is included on the Montreux Record of Ramsar sites requiring priority attention; it has been the subject of national and international concern, chiefly because recently-constructed major dams on inflow rivers interrupt the quality and quantity of water reaching the lake. An important report, published in 1996 by the Ministry of the Environment after several years of detailed studies, drew attention to three points: the wetland is in a state of crisis, and water resources will have to be provided if the ecological character of the lake is to be maintained; the marshes around the lake and their vegetation have been particularly affected; a central authority is required to coordinate management of the lake between the many bodies involved - fisheries, agriculture, conservation, water supply, nature conservation. The Ministry of Environment promised to provide further information on the work carried out in execution of the recommendations of the 1996 report.
Mr Smart visited the lake twice during his stay and was happy to note that, while there are still many problems to be solved, the traditional wintering bird populations have to some extent been restored (at least 100,000 ducks, coot and geese noted). This is in large measure due to the good rainfall of winter 95/96 (which allowed one of the main food plants, Potamogeton, to be reconstituted), and to the closure of the sluice at the lake's outlet to the sea in summer 1996. However, it is not certain that the Potamogeton will respond as well following the less plentiful rains of 1996/97, and there is still major concern about two of the other main plants, Scirpus and Phragmites, which have not recovered from the high salt content of the lake water, caused by the cutting off of normal water supplies during the filling of the dams and the three-year drought before 1995. Measures are also required on releases of water to inundate the marshes at the mouths of the inflow rivers.
It was agreed that there is no need for the Ramsar Bureau to organize a mission under the Ramsar Management Guidance Procedure in 1997, and that the Tunisian authorities should take the time to act on the recommendations of the Ministry of Environment's report. There is still a need to improve coordination of the collection of data on the site (salinity, recovery of plants, waterfowl census), and of decisions on the opening and closing of the sluice. The sluice has been open since 19 December 1996 to allow a leeching of salt accumulated during the hot summer of 1996 and to allow fish to enter the lake; it will certainly need to be closed again in early spring 1997 to retain fresh water and to prevent inflow of salt water from the sea.
Establishment of a wetland centre in Tunisia: Whereas on the European shores of the Mediterranean there are a number of specialized wetland centres (e.g., Doñana Biological Station in Spain, Tour du Valat in Camargue, Greek Biotopes/Wetland Centre in Thessaloniki), there is no such centre in North Africa. One of the long term goals of MedWet is to establish such a centre, whose role would be to collect, store and analyse the multidisciplinary data on which management policies for wetlands could be based - in short a Wetland Observatory. At present there is no such central system, and no centre for processing advice to ministries charged with wetland management, wise use and conservation. One of the purposes of Mr Smarts visit was to raise with as many officials as possible the idea of developing just such a centre, possibly in conjuction with the existing Regional Activities Centre for Special Protected Areas (RAC/SPA), linked to the existing Mediterranean Action Plan of the Barcelona Convention, which is in Tunis. (Tunisia will almost certainly host the next Conference of the Parties to the Barcelona Convention).
Mr Smart discussed the idea not only with RAC/SPA, but with senior officials of the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment, with heads of institutes attached to the Secretariat of State for Scientific Research, and with NGO bodies. In all cases there was immediate interest and support for the principle of establishing such a centre, initially for Tunisia, but with the possibility of wider action in North Africa. A number of possible scenarios for the administrative linkage of such a centre were suggested. The idea will clearly be one of the major subjects for discussion at the Wetland Seminar, to be organized under the MedWet project in Sousse in May 1997.
Ramsar Small Grants Fund: Tunisia has received one grant under the fund, for printing and publication of a Tunisian Wetland Inventory. Work on the book, in English and French, has almost been completed by University College London. The Ministry of Agriculture is currently preparing two applications for funding for March 1997.
Implementation of the Ramsar Strategic Plan 1997- 2002: The Ministry of Agriculture regards the MedWet project as a part of its implementation of the plan and hopes that, after the Kelbia pilot project, similar management actions at other Tunisian wetlands can be funded. Several nature reserves have been established at Tunisian wetlands, including two peatlands, and their designation as Ramsar sites will be considered.
Sub-regional coordination of Ramsar activities: The Tunisian authorities think that the national seminars to be held in 1997 under the MedWet project should be completed before it is necessary to hold another Ramsar sub-regional meeting for North Africa.