- The decision by Tunisian authorities to protect 15 wetland sites has been welcomed by environmentalist groups. The wetlands to be protected total over 750,000 hectares and vary in landscape.
These landscapes include salt lakes, swamps, peat bogs, dunes, karstic caves, oases, and lagoons, and are home to some 85 aquatic plant species. The Tunisian government has decided to protect these internationally important wetland sites under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, providing the highest level of protection.
Tunisia's rich wetland environment also attracts up to a half a million birds, and supports 350,000 individuals of 33 species of sandpipers alone. During the migratory season, wetlands host 250,000 ducks, which make up 58 percent of the Maghreb's total population, as well as 25,000 flamingos that form a third of the Mediterranean population.
- This is an important milestone for wetland conservation in Tunisia, commented today Faouzi Maamouri, head of the Tunis office of the environmentalist group WWF. "The next step is for Ramsar to evaluate the sites in order to designate them as wetlands of international importance," added Mr Maamouri.
According to WWF, wetlands in Tunisia are also of economic importance, providing thousands of families with income from fishing and shellfish collection. Lake Ichkeul - currently the only Ramsar site found within the country - provides 150 to 200 tons of fish a year, while the Ghar el Melah lagoon provides 80 tons.
Thousands of tourists visit the Korba lagoon, Lake Ichkeul, and the salt lakes of Thyna and Monastir each year. The protection of these wetland sites under the Ramsar Convention may even increase their popularity among tourists, Tunisian authorities hope.
However, the country's wetlands are still threatened by pollution, unplanned development, and agriculture, WWF notes. The environmentalist group therefore for years has been pushing for a protection of these valuable areas before more damage is done by urban encroachment.
It is estimated that Tunisia has lost 28 percent of its wetlands in a little over a century, mainly as a result of drainage, while urbanisation accounts for the loss of over 3,300 hectares of wetlands each year. In addition, 27 percent of Tunisia's lakes and marshes, and 21 percent of its rivers are polluted, according to the environmentalist group.
The Tunisian government's announcement to increase the number and area of wetlands protected under Ramsar has been a result of WWF's collaboration with the national Forest Department. In a recent speech, Tunisia's Secretary of State for Water Resources acknowledged WWF's role and also mentioned a willingness to protect more wetlands and to design a national strategy for them.
The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands - signed in 1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar - is a treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. There are currently 141 parties to the convention, with 1,387 wetland sites, totalling over 122 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.
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