Protection 'vital for Mediterranean's wetlands'
Urgent government action is the only thing that can stem the crisis facing the Mediterranean's wetlands.
That was the message from a recent meeting convened to discuss how best to protect these increasingly vulnerable ecosystems.
Mangroves, reed beds, peat bogs, ponds, river banks, swamps, marshes all fall under the heading of wetlands.
Under the umbrella of the Mediterranean Wetlands Initiative (MedWet), more than 350 specialists from countries in the region came together in Agadir, Morocco, to discuss the challenges facing these unique ecosystems.
They were drawn from a daunting range of disciplines: there were bird watchers, eel specialists, forestry commissioners, marine biologists and environmentalists present at the symposium.
Their discussions centred on refining old strategies and developing new ways of conserving wetlands.
With more than 50% of the Mediterranean's wetlands lost over the last century, Laurent Chazee, the co-ordinator of a report published during the symposium, say he wants governments to wake-up, stressing the need for urgent action.
"It is no longer enough to leave the fight to environmentalists," he says.
"Governments must get involved and policies have to be more clearly thought through. If not, whole areas of countries to the south of the Mediterranean will be de-populated as people move away in search of water."
In addition to increasing population, intensive agriculture, tourism pressures and climate change, new and as yet unquantified changes are having an impact on wetlands.
According to Tymio Pappayannis, the head of MedWet's International Organising Committee based in Athens, Europe's economic crisis is forcing environmental concerns down the list of priorities.
"Europe is pre-occupied with financial problems and the Euro," he explains. "But it is foolish to neglect a long term, co-ordinated policy towards water and wetland conservation. They are key to the future."
But with Europeans deterred by a lack of money, or fear by fear of taking holidays in eastern and southern Mediterranean countries, places such as Syria and Egypt are already enjoying reduced tourist pressure on their precious wetlands.
This optimistic note was echoed by Nejib Benessaiah, the Tunisian co-ordinator of MedWet. "The Arab Spring has brought huge changes," he states. "It is different in every country but the general trend is towards more democracy. Local people are always concerned about the water resources that they use and so we need to involve them more."
A field trip to the Souss Massa National Park 40km south of Agadir brought the symposium's participants into close proximity with oryx, ostrich and Dorcas gazelle. In the humid zones near the two river estuaries there was an even greater surprise.
"We have the world's only wild colony of bald ibis," says Mohammad El Bekkay looking through his binoculars. He runs the park and consults with local villagers over how to generate income.
"But we are planning to develop more tourist facilities so that the villagers can act as guides and sell their crafts. We can't just keep the public out."
As the symposium drew to a close, general guidelines were adopted including a proposal to pay attention to the cultural component of wetland use. Assad Serhal of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon emphasised the benefits of customs and traditions.
"Overuse and pollution of water is forbidden in the Qu'ran and the Sharia," he says. "In Arab countries where the notion of hima, or common ownership exists, local people take care of the wetlands because they use this resource. Problems arise when you get central control."
Although the scientific community attending the symposium are key to protecting the wetlands of the region, they face huge problems.
Some 60% of the world's population that are poor in water live in the Mediterranean region and the area comprises 30% of the world's tourism destinations - especially coastal regions.
The real conclusion at the end of three days of talking was of the need for governments to that only state action would stem the loss of these vital eco-systems.