Ichkeul Lake workshop, Tunisia, January 2003

05/02/2003

Report on the workshop on Ichkeul Lake,
Tunisia 28 & 29 January 2003

The workshop was hosted by the Tunisian authorities, and specifically by ANPE (Agence Nationale de Protection de l'Environnement), the Environment Agency of the Ministry of Environment and Land Use. It was organised with financial support by UNESCO - World Heritage Centre, and technical support by IUCN-Mediterranean Office and the Station Biologique de la Tour du Valat (member of the MedWet Technical Network).

The objective of the meeting was to assess the options for a sustainable future for Ichkeul, especially as regards the water regime and development potential of the surrounding region.

Ichkeul is the only Ramsar site of Tunisia and one of the most important wetlands of the western Mediterranean basin, along with Camargue (France), Donana (Spain) and El Kara (Algeria), included in the Montreux record of the Convention since 1990 (and also in the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger), due to the restriction in water supply (see below) resulting in a serious threat of change of ecological status for the lake and the surrounding marshes.

Three dams have been constructed in three rivers providing water to Ichkeul (Joumine - 1983, Ghezala - 1984, Sejenane - 1994), while three more are planned as part of a broader plan of hydrological management of Tunisia. During the period of filling the dams with water the supply to Ichkeul was very low to minimal, a fact further aggravated by the acute drought conditions during the last four years. As a result, the salinity of Ichkeul has sharply increased (Ickkeul communicates with the sea through the Tinja Canal), sometimes reaching twice the salinity of the sea water. Consequently, a serious alteration to the ecological conditions of the site has occurred, through prolonged drought of the surrounding marshlands, alterations of the prevalent vegetation and avifauna, and many more.

This year has been an extraordinarily humid year for Tunisia, filling the dams and indeed allowing them to overflow in towards Ichkeul. The result was a magnificent sight of Ichkeul with the marshlands fully flooded (although the vegetation cover alterations and the reduced populations of birds are very evident).

The workshop

The workshop was well attended by a large number of national and international experts, representing various Tunisian Institutions and International Organisations (IUCN, Ramsar/MedWet, Tour du Valat, UNEP/MAP (RAC/SPA).

The impressive number and diversity of studies that have been carried out on Ichkeul during the past decade, and the results of a monitoring programme carried out by ANPE were presented, and the basic facts and figures put to discussion and dialogue, aiming to propose a synthesis that could address the problems of the site.

It should be noted that a Ramsar Advisory Mission carried out in 1997 had proposed the following actions to be undertaken:

1. Have a clear indication of measures to be taken by the Tunisian Authorities
2. Realise an intersectorial agreement between the ministries involved
3. create a central service to treat problems and formulate a long term management strategy
4. Repair slouches
5. restore the Joumine marshland
6. establish a permanent scientific monitoring of the ecology of the park.

During the workshop, Spyros Kouvelis, the MedWet Coordinator and representative of the Ramsar Bureau made a comprehensive presentation of the Resolutions with direct relevance to the case of Ichkeul, adopted at the recent COP8, namely:

- VIII.1 'Guidelines for the allocation and management of water for maintaining the ecological functions of wetlands'
- VIII.14 'New guidelines for management planning of Ramsar sites and other wetlands'
- VIII.16 'Principles and guidelines for wetlands restoration';

and encouraged the national authorities to use them for designing and implementing actions for resolving the Ichkeul problems.

The workshop, after an intensive 2-day work concluded to a set of recommendations for resolving the problems of Ichkeul, which were agreed by the participants and presented to the Secretary of State for the Environment and Secretary of State for the Management of Water Resources.

The recommendations (a three and a half page document) can be summarised as follows:

1. Put in place a structure for the management of the Park of Ichkeul, responsible to implement a management plan that is to be drawn as part of a GEF/WB project, bringing together the relevant national authorities, scientific expertise and the local population. Such a structure should be reinforced with decisive powers and provided with the resources needed to carry out its tasks.

2. Create a scientific committee. In order to ensure the scientific adequacy of input provided to the management structure of Ichkeul, a permanent scientific committee should be established officially. Its role would be to orient and validate the monitoring activities, assist in selecting research teams, validate research conclusions, assist research teams, assist in producing an annual report on Ichkeul, provide opinion in management programmes.

3. Create a Local Agenda 21 for the region of Ichkeul. In order to use Ichkeul as a development tool for the broader area, a Local Agenda 21 initiative should be created. This will allow the design and implementation of regional development activities, taking into account the socio-economic and environmental particularities of the region and local populations

4. Develop a programme of scientific monitoring. Based on the concept prepared by IUCN and Tour du Valat, develop further the monitoring programme carried out by ANPE into a fully fledged monitoring programme, allowing the observation of changes in the ecosystem, and consequently decision making.

5. Water management for Ichkeul. Having acknowledged the importance of the already undertaken activities (supply of water from the Sidi El Barrak dam through the Sejanne Dam, the repair works for the Tinja slouch, and the bathymetry and topography works undertaken for the lake and the marshes), the workshop proposed a number of appropriate actions to be undertaken on the water management issue:

a. ensure an appropriate management of the Tinja slouch and the creation of a manual of procedures for its management based on a model.
b. determine on the basis of bathymetry studies the sedimentary evolution of the lake and undertake rehabilitation actions as needed,
c. ensure the provision of sufficient quantities of water to the lake, ranging between 80 to 100 million cubic meters per year, besides the natural supply by the catchment basin, and notwithstanding the planned construction of the three additional dams.

6. Implement the management plan of the Ichkeul Park. The Plan, undertaken by the Min. of Agriculture, Environment and Water Resources and funded by FFEM/WB, should take these recommendations into account.

The recommendations were presented to the two Secretaries of State and although they were welcome they were not readily endorsed. Especially on the issue of water provision from the dams to Ichkeul, the Ministry of Water Resources did not make any firm commitment, but rather made a vague reference to a much smaller amount of water (20-25 Million cubic meters) than that determined as necessary by the studies for the maintenance of the ecological character of the site.

In closing, some conclusions can be drawn:

- The current status of Ichkeul remains critical, even under the exceptional rainfall conditions of this year. The ample provision of water during the current period should be used wisely and without delay for the optimal rehabilitation of the site's ecological characteristics.

- Taking into account the difficult hydrological conditions normally prevailing in the region, and the adverse effects created by the construction of the dams, the national authorities should commit themselves in line with their determination to protect the values of the Ichkeul Park, and provide the necessary quantities of water, following scientific advice. The status of Ichkeul after a rehabilitation effort should be clearly defined as an objective. The choice is between a number of more or less realistic objectives, depending on a number of decisions to be made.

- Pre-dams condition / full restoration. This could be a panacea as the available water resources, and the ecological change that has already occurred may be irreversible factors.

- Optimal rehabilitation status for the lake and marshes. This would request a commitment for the supply of water resources as mentioned in the recommendations, and a well planned restoration programme for the other parameters of the ecosystem;

- With fewer water resources available, only the optimal rehabilitation of the marshes should be sought, but this would mean the increased salinization and change of ecological character of the lake. Obviously this should be seen as the 'minimised damage scenario' and not as a proper solution.

- The authorities should take immediate action in implementing the recommendations concerning the establishment of a management structure for the Park and the related scientific committee and regional development programmes, as there is an obvious shortcoming of coordination and decision making in a coherent, strategic way.

The current meteorological and hydrological conditions in the Ichkeul catchment basin are very favourable, making the workshop a timely and possibly unique chance for the rehabilitation of the ecosystem that may not occur again before it is too late.

-- reported by Spyros Kouvelis, MedWet Coordinator

A wet year for a change: the Ichkeul marshlands with water for the first time in the past several years.

The meeting venue, the Ichkeul information centre

Ichkeul lake to the left, and the marshes to the right, these dry for the past few years.

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