Euro Mediterranean Ministerial Conference on the Environment, July 2002

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Nature protection, water management, rural activities and culture

Spyros Kouvelis
MedWet Coordinator

MedWet Coordination Unit, Villa Kazouli, Lambraki 1 & Kifissias, 145 61 Kifissia, Greece, tel+30-10-8089270, fax +30-10-8089274

MedWet is established within the framework of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, as its regional initiative for the conservation and sustainable development of Mediterranean Wetlands.

All 25 Mediterranean counties / authority participate in it, as well as 4 International NGOs (WWF Intl., Birdlife Intl., Wetlands Intl., IUCN). MedWet has also established long term working partnerships with other significant actors in the Mediterranean, including UNEP/MAP and GWP-Med.

The operation of MedWet is supported by the technical and scientific capacity of a technical network of 4 specialised wetland centres (Tour du Valat in France, EKBY in Greece, SEHUMED in Spain, and CEZH/ICN in Portugal). In addition a North African Wetlands Network that already incorporates focal units in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia is being developed, and is expected to soon cover Egypt and Libya. The next step is to extend this network to East Mediterranean coast.

The Coordination Unit of MedWet is hosted in Athens by the Greek Ministry of Environment, Physical Planning and Public Works, covering its operation budget for the years 2002-2002.

The integration challenge

The Mission of MedWet is the same with that of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands: "The conservation and wise use of wetlands by national action and international cooperation as a means to achieving sustainable development throughout the world" .

Wetlands are among the world's most productive environments. They are cradles of biological diversity, providing the water and primary productivity upon which countless species of plants and animals depend for survival. They support high concentrations of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrate species. Of the 20,000 species of fish in the world, more than 40% live in fresh water. Wetlands are also important storehouses of plant genetic material. Rice, for example, which is a common wetland plant, is the staple diet of more than half of humanity.

More and more economists and other scientists are working in the field of the valuation of ecosystem services. Studies have indicated that ecosystems provide at least US$ 33 trillion worth of services annually, of which US$ 4.9 trillion are attributed to wetlands.

The interactions of physical, biological and chemical components of a wetland, such as soils, water, plants and animals, enable the wetland to perform many vital functions, for example: water storage; storm protection and flood mitigation; shoreline stabilization and erosion control; groundwater recharge; groundwater discharge; water purification through retention of nutrients, sediments, and pollutants; and stabilization of local climate conditions, particularly rainfall and temperature.

Besides the services and resources provided by wetlands to society as common goods, many human activities are carried out in wetlands, for example: agriculture, fisheries, livestock raising , tourism and recreation, while many industries are established close to wetlands and urban agglomerations are developed in their vicinity due to the availability of natural resources and especially water.

As a result of the multi-stakeholder character of wetlands, they constitute an ideal case for demonstrating the complexity of pressures on their multiple values, applied from the different uses, but also a very good case for showing the potential of integrating the environment into economic and social uses of resources.

In the Mediterranean region, the conservation and even the existence of biological diversity is inextricably linked with human presence and activities: the creation of a varied landscape allowing a high diversity of species to be present is to a large extent due to the effects of human activities (agriculture, logging, pasture, damming, flooding) over hundreds of years.

In order to maintain the diversity and balance of Mediterranean ecosystems, the presence of human activities is necessary. However, it must be appropriately managed in order to match the ecosystem needs and limits. The effects of human activities on the above mentioned public resources and services, as well as the attribution of property rights, through the market or by regulation, must be carefully assessed, in order to maintain the balance between resource use and ecosystem functions.

Water Management

Water is the first resource that comes to mind when thinking of wetlands. It can be seen from two ends:

· As a necessary input from the catchment basin to the wetland to maintain its functions and existence, and
· As a resource provided by the wetland to users around it (pumping, canals)

The effects of water use through abduction from the wetland or by keeping it from arriving in the wetland may be very serious and could include for example:

· Alteration of the hydrological balance of a wetland (e.g. drought or flood conditions incompatible with the ecosystem processes);
· Lowering of the groundwater table, with direct effects on spring water existence and salinisation in coastal wetlands);
· Retention of sediments and impoverishment of wetlands in nutrients, also leading to coastline erosion and sea water intrusion

In order to avoid such impacts, which do not only have an effect on the ecosystem health but lead to long term degradation of the common resources used for economic and social activities, the quantity of water and the seasonal patterns of water use must be carefully assessed and regulated.

There can be two general ways of regulating water use in wetlands:

I) Regulation through legislation and other administrative acts, to be implemented by the competent authorities. To this end, the recent Water Framework Directive of the EU introduces three important principles:

· the assessment of environmental needs for water allocation;
· the management of water resources at a catchment basin level, with the creation of competent management authorities;
· the introduction of water cost and pricing.

In this way, the "shadow" values of water uses that do not have a direct economic result and consist common goods to society (for example wildlife habitats and biodiversity existence, landscape preservation) can be incorporated through regulation in the assessment of the optimal use of water, and thus be taken into account for water costing.

II) Regulating water use through general agreements between water users (where the scale of the wetland allows it). In that case, the different groups of users come to common agreements (often developed through traditions, customs and even found in culture and religion) for the attribution of the right to use water in an equitable way, taking into account the maintenance of the ecosystem.

Box 1: The case of Ouled Said oasis in Algeria

The Ouled Said Oasis in Algeria has based its economic life and survival on water management. Using the precious water resources of the oasis, the inhabitants of Ouled Said have constructed a traditional but very efficient system for water canalization, with which they provide water for the production of dates, the most important produce of Ouled Said. The careful management of water resources has been the force keeping back the advancing of the desert, which otherwise would have long ago covered the oasis.

Rural activities

A multitude of rural activities are present in most wetlands, owing to the favourable conditions found in them. Agriculture of many kinds, grazing, fisheries, small scale manufacturing and produce processing can be found in most Mediterranean wetlands (large scale processing is considered an industrial rather than rural activity - but is present in many Mediterranean wetlands).

Such activities have a direct management effect on wetlands by regulating, in ways that are external to the ecosystem, many crucial parameters including:

· Species composition and populations (fisheries, hunting, species introduction, pesticides),
· Flora coverage (grazing, clearing, burning, nutrients and fertilizers),
· Maintenance of natural or artificial habitats (hedges, ricefields, saltpans)
· Sediment flow through the catchment basin (as a result of erosion)

The impacts of human activities on wetlands can be substantial and in many cases irreversible. On the other hand, and in order to maintain the positive effects of human activities as a component of the management of wetland ecosystems, an integrated approach towards planning and implementing human interventions is needed.

In the case of wetlands, due to the multitude of uses and stakeholders and the great spatial dispersion of activities, careful assessment of the effects of policies and plans that may have an impact can make a major difference:

· The tool of Strategic Environmental Assessment is particularly relevant in the case of planning policies addressing activities with high spatial dispersion and limited means of control. A typical example is agriculture, where the small scale of activities and the dispersion of impacts (non-point sources of pollution and nutrients / fertilizers), and the difficulty of monitoring the effects at the source is a serious problem. In that case the tools integrated in a sectoral policy for providing a control mechanism can make a vast difference.

· The economic and policy tools providing incentives to wetland users who are involved in rural activities can be very important. Providing incentives for high quality products and promoting their marketing potential (labeling schemes, creation of cooperative structures) provide cost-efficient mechanisms that carry a strong message towards a sector that is traditionally very cumbersome towards the introduction of changes.

· The establishment of participative mechanisms at a local and regional level for the adoption of tailor-made solutions allows a better integration of environmental concerns in sectoral policies, while at the same time securing a better rate of acceptance by local wetland users (as opposed to centrally planned measures). Locally based Management Committees are one example.

· The attribution of exclusive rights of use, provided that they create an equitable distribution of benefits to the local societies (for example through the creation of employment opportunities) can often be the solution to non-sustainable and/or exhaustive use of wetlands resources.

· Finally, training and information on appropriately adapted techniques (grazing, fishing tools) can assist users in applying the right solutions.

Cultural aspects of wetlands

Based on the material prepared by Thymio Papayannis, Senior Advisor on Mediterranean Wetlands

Because wetlands have always been a source of multiple resources and services (water, land, food, transport), they have constituted through the ages the birthplace and scene of development of most important civilizations.

Besides producing a significant richness of material civilization, as is demonstrated by the numerous archeological findings in wetland areas, the interaction of humans with wetlands has also produced non-material civilization: throughout the world and in the Mediterranean region, an important variety of folklore, music, mythology, traditions, customs and popular knowledge and wisdom can be found in social practices and traditional forms of social organization for managing wetland resources, and especially water.

The cultural values of wetlands bear great importance to the societies living close to them and have constituted part of their identity. These values are a collective legacy to today's society, and therefore their loss may not only contribute to the alienation of local people from wetlands, but in the loss of valuable know how for wetland management.

It is therefore certain that a number of steps must be taken for integrating cultural aspects with the conservation and sustainable management of wetlands, in order to secure the multiple benefits that accrue from this inter-relation:

· A first step towards this link is to identify and record the cultural aspects related to different wetlands and their relation to the current social conditions. Pinpointing those that may have a strong potential for contributing to effective site management can constitute an important knowledge basis.
· Linking the cultural aspects to the wetland resources and especially water can provide a good vehicle for introducing sustainable management practices.
· Adopt measures for the protection of the wetland-related cultural landscapes
· Use traditional approaches as a source of information and ideas for proposing policies and regulatory measures.
· Support and maintain self-management practices
· Introduce the assessment of the cultural and social impact of policies and plans in the Strategic Environmental Assessment process.

MedWet and the integration process

Ever since its inception, 10 years ago, MedWet has established as a central objective the promotion of the sustainable management of wetlands, by including in its scope the human (economic and non-economic) activities. As a result, the integration of resource use (including water, land, wildlife etc) and the sustainable management of human practices (rural activities, urban development, and recreation) have been in the centre of its activity.

During this decade, MedWet has implemented a large number of project and activities, mobilizing at the same time very significant funds for the protection and management of wetlands in the Mediterranean region:

Project / activity









Co-ordination Group, executants



European Commission and project partners

France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain



Ramsar Bureau, beneficiaries



European Commission and project partners

Albania, Algeria, Croatia, Morocco, Tunisia



UNDP, Tour du Valat, beneficiaries

In execution


Global Environmental Facility &  FFEM

Albania, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Pal. Authority



Tour du Valat



Danone Group

France, Greece, Italy

MedWet Coordination





MAVA foundation (Switzerland)


MedWet Coordination



On going


Greece / Min. of Environment


EKBY participation



On going


Greece / Min. of Environment


SEHUMED participation



On going


Spain / Min. of Environment 


Tour du Valat participation



On going



France /  / Min. of Environment & Tour du Valat Foundation









§ MedWet1: Co-ordinated development and testing of standardised methods for wetland conservation and management in the Mediterranean.
§ MedWet2: Use of MedWet methods at selected sites, national reviews and wetland seminars, development of socio-economic approach.
§ MedWet/Coast: Biodiversity conservation in coastal and wetland sites of global importance.
§ MedWet4:Technical exchanges between Ramsar delta sites in the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions.

Through those projects, MedWet has worked in close collaboration with the Mediterranean countries / authority for implementing activities that aim at the integration of environmental concerns in national and regional sectoral policies and practices. Some of these activities include:

· Improving knowledge on wetlands
By using and disseminating the Mediterranean Wetlands Inventory System and Database developed by MedWet for inventory, mapping and monitoring of all Mediterranean wetlands, MedWet is already moving towards completing a data base of the Mediterranean wetlands, in which all the impacts and threats posed by human uses and activities are monitored. This will constitute a useful input for the development of sectoral policies.

· Using wetland resources in a sustainable way
Applying the participatory approach, using economic wetland valuation techniques and undertaking socio-cultural analyses for planning the sustainable development of Mediterranean wetland sites. In this way MedWet is promoting and applying the Ramsar guidelines for the establishment of truly inter-sectoral policies and the legal protection of wetlands. Through the MedWet/Coast project currently in execution in 6 countries, national strategies are being drafted for the conservation of wetlands, taking into account the sectoral policies.

· Managing wetland water resources
Promoting the Integrated Water Resources Management for implementing water use policies at catchment basin level, and taking full advantage of wetland functions in the hydrological cycle, including their water purification abilities.

· Maintaining and enhancing the biodiversity of wetlands
Restoring ecological functions and degraded wetland sites, protecting threatened species and habitats, alleviating the negative influences of introduced species, and harvesting wild species according to the precautionary principle.

· Achieving integrated management of wetland sites
Training local wetland users and national wetland managers in modern site management techniques, improving management capacities locally, and making available expertise in the entire Mediterranean basin.

· Cultural aspects of wetlands
Promoting the inclusion of the cultural aspects of wetlands through establishing the appropriate guidelines and strategic directions for the Ramsar Convention.

· Strengthening international collaboration
Exchanging knowledge and experience across the region, and reinforcing the collaboration among governmental and non-governmental organisations. Such collaborations include joint activities with the Regional Activity Centre on Specially Protected Areas (RAC/SPA) of UNEP/MAP, working on Agriculture, Food and Environment interaction with the Global Water Partnership in the Mediterranean (GWP-Med), and developing joint activities with IUCN-Med on water management.

Box 2: The MedWet/Coast project

The MedWetCoast project aims at catalysing a sustainable mechanism for the conservation of wetlands and coastal areas at the level of the Mediterranean basin.It operates for this purpose in close collaboration with existing regional activities, specifically the MedWet Initiative (Ramsar Convention) and the Mediterranean Action Plan (the Barcelona Convention). It also intends to establish operational links with the Mediterranean programmes of organizations such as the IUCN and the WWF.

Such synergies should allow to disseminate in all neighbouring countries the experience gained in the six countries involved in the project. They should also allow to mobilize the extensive potential of knowledge, skills and action that exist within the different organizations.

In this part of the world where biodiversity stands among the richest and most threatened, MedWetCoast thus actively contributes to conserve biodiversity and to "close the Mediterranean circle".

Lessons learned / bottlenecks

Through the work of MedWet during the last decade in the Mediterranean region, a number of difficulties quite particular to the Mediterranean region have been faced. The Mediterranean is not characterised by homogeneity, and the problems MedWet has been dealing with were of many and varying types. In an effort to summarise the most common problems, the following can be mentioned:

Regional disparities
The Mediterranean is a region with important disparities between the North and South, but differences are abundant also between countries in the sub-regions (Europe, North Africa, East Mediterranean). MedWet, in trying to develop common methodologies and approaches for managing wetlands and integrating the environmental concerns in sectoral policies has had to deal very often with very different conditions at various levels.

· Economic disparities, especially between the EU and most other countries. As expected the needs are greater where the financial means are less abundant.
· Legal basis. The differences in the legal background between countries are substantial. This effect is less felt in the EU due to the common set of Directives and Regulations, while in other countries the approaches to be followed must be tailor made to suit their proper needs.
· Administrative capacities. The relevant strength of national administrations also varies significantly around the Mediterranean. In this case the pattern does not necessarily follow the level of economic strength of a country. The involvement of specific persons with good communications skills and a firm commitment to sustainable development has often been the key, but this is not a guarantee for continuity.

Facing deeply rooted perceptions
In most Mediterranean countries the work of MedWet had to overcome some perceptions that, although nor related to actual facts (at least in the present conditions) had been prevailing in society. For example the perception of wetlands as "wastelands that should be drained" took a very significant effort to overturn. Similarly, the perception that wetland birds damage crops, although in many cases they do not feed or nest in them is still prevailing in many countries and wetland areas. MedWet's answer to this problem is channelled through programmes of information and public awareness. In this effort the collaboration with local groups proves to be a key factor.

Explaining the social and economic values of wetlands
Because wetland resources and services constitute in many cases common goods, they are often taken for granted, while their preservation and sustainable management is considered a duty of the society at large or of the government, but this rarely comes down to the user level. Following an objective socio-economic approach that aims at attaching the right values to such common goods (which are not necessarily expressed in financial terms) is the best vehicle to overcome this problem. The participatory approach and public awareness can be useful tools in this process.

The pseudo-dilemma on the conflict of nature vs. development
One of the most deeply rooted misconceptions in most countries is the case of nature conservation being an obstacle to development. In this seemingly eternal conflict, both sides have a work to do: nature conservation should not be imposing excessive restrictions in uses, as they would serve no purpose and on the contrary would alienate local people from the nature conservation effort. On the other hand, development planners should take into account that the maintenance and protections of natural ecosystems is often a far more cost-effective and efficient mechanism than replacing their functions with man-made infrastructures.

Developing synergies with non-environmental partners
The participatory approach is often exhausted to incorporating the actors that are already involved in nature conservation or environmental protection. However, failure to include the sectors and users that have direct or indirect effects on the wetlands is a degeneration of the participatory approach that leads to false conclusions and usually creates intense polarization situations.

Channelling funds and securing management & operations
In the Mediterranean region it is often too difficult to channel the funds to those (countries or sites) that most need them. Unfortunately, the weakest links in the system, be it countries, professions or areas, have also the least capacity for effectively requesting support, absorbing funds and managing projects. Well established networks and mechanisms, including inter-governmental agreements and international NGOs are important partners in reversing this trend.

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