Saharan fruit-growing, foggara style | WWF

Saharan fruit-growing, foggara style

Posted on
20 November 2002

The Saharan desert seems an unlikely place to find wetlands, let alone a thriving fruit-growing business. But Algeria's Ouled Saïd has both. Ouled Saїd is a network of oases in southwestern Algeria — an isolated island of green in a vast ocean of sand dunes. This human-made wetland covers an area of 25,400 hectares, and is a centre of date production in northern Africa. Over 100 varieties of date are grown here, serving as a food staple for local 'oasiens'. The dates also contribute to the local economy, with three varieties exported to Sudan. Ouled Saїd relies on an ingenious and ancient system to capture and distribute groundwater. This system, called foggara, works through a complex network of underground channels and storage chambers that allow water to flow within the oases. The water is then brought to the surface and distributed according to an ancestral social organization via a tool called the kasria. The kasria is a like a cookie cutter: a plate measuring some 25cm wide and 150cm long with differently sized holes along its length. The kasria is inserted vertically into the underground stream to bring water to the surface. This water is then divided into channels of different sizes that run to individual gardens. The amount of water is controlled by the size of the hole in the kasria, and corresponds to the need of individual families as determined by a local committee. In this way, the water is shared equitably for the cultivation of date palms as well as cereals and vegetables. The local oasiens are not the only beneficiaries of this important water source. For birds migrating from Europe to Africa, the wetlands are a perfect pitstop after their weary trip across the Mediterranean Sea. Seventy-one species of migratory birds have been recorded in Algeria, including the spectacular pink flamingo. The foggara is an outstanding example of the wise use of water and wetlands, as well as the cultural heritage of wetlands. But although all these principles are embodied in the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands — a global treaty for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources — Ouled Saїd was not included on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance until February 2001. This listing was significant not just for Algeria's water management, but also for rare wetlands such as oases, which are under-represented in the Ramsar Convention. Ingenious as the foggara is, however, it can't guard against the billowing winds of the desert. Slowly but surely, Ouled Saїd is being overtaken by sand. Only four months after the oasis became a Ramsar site, it was placed on the Montreux Record: the official listing of Ramsar wetlands that are degraded. But the Montreux Record is not meant to simply be a list of wetlands under threat. The idea is that wetlands on this record receive priority attention for conservation efforts so that they can be removed from the list as quickly as possible. A project to restore Ouled Saїd began in October 2001 with help from WWF, the Algerian Forestry Division, and local people. The aim was that the restoration work would be complete by this month, in time for the Ramsar Convention meeting being held in Valencia, Spain, from 18–26 November. The good news is that this deadline was met: an announcement will be made today in Valencia to start the process of removing Ouled Saїd from the Montreux Record. One part of the restoration work involved growing drought-resistant plants, which will eventually form a windshield on the edge of the oasis to stop the sand dunes from encroaching. Oasiens – partly paid, partly working as volunteers — have also woven date palm fronds into natural walls to help protect the wetlands from wind erosion. Algeria's oases support the food and water needs of thousands of people. They are also important economically. In 2001, total revenue from date exports totaled US$18 million — no match for the US$20 billion dollars earned each year though oil, but nevertheless an important source of revenue in isolated places such as Ouled Saїd. The hard work involved in restoring Ouled Saїd will ensure that date growing in the Algerian Sahara remains viable, protecting not just the food and income of the people who live there, but also their culture and traditions. At the same time, this work will help protect the country's precious water — a finite resource in this arid part of the world. Ouled Saїd truly is a model of "Wetlands: water, life, and culture". (747 words) * Lisa Hadeed is Communications Manager at WWF International's Living Waters Programme Further information: Ramsar Convention on Wetlands Signed in 1971 in the city of Ramsar, Iran, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. There are currently (November 2002) 133 Contracting Parties to the Convention, with 1201 wetland sites, totalling 105.8 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. Wetlands are defined to include rivers, lakes, swamps, and marine areas less than six metres in depth. Member countries of the treaty are obliged to do three things: • Manage all wetlands in a sustainable manner, promoting the wise use of all wetlands within their territory. • Consult with other Parties about the implementation of the Convention, especially with regard to trans-frontier wetlands, shared water systems, shared species, and development • Designate wetlands that meet the criteria for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance for conservation. Ramsar Convention COP8 The Eighth Conference of the Convention of Parties to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands takes place from November 18–26 in Valencia, Spain, with a theme of "Wetlands: water, life, and culture". WWF will work to promote the Ramsar Convention as an effective tool for protection and management of wetlands. WWF's work on freshwater WWF's Living Waters Programme is a global response to the world's fast-degrading freshwater. WWF is working regionally, nationally, and locally to address threats to freshwater and avert a growing crisis. WWF aims to keep water flowing fresh by: • increasing wetland conservation areas and improving their management and uses • managing rivers better by recognising the vital interdependence of land, water, and ecosystems • promoting more efficient use of water by industry and agriculture