In northern Tunisia, local farmers near a seaside lagoon are fighting to preserve a unique traditional irrigation system.
As scarcity of water intensifies in the small fishing town of Ghar El Melh, the irrigation system has ignited renewed interest in this north African nation.
The “ramli” technique has been used since the 17th century, when Muslims and Jews settled in North Africa after fleeing the Catholic reconquest of Andalusia.
Khaled ben Youssef has been growing produce using the “ramli” technique. According to the 40- year old, last year, his potatoes were destroyed because of floods.
“If the level of the land is too low, when it rains and the sea level rises, the land becomes flooded. It will not produce anything anymore. What you have planted is destroyed. Last year, we planted potatoes in the fall and everything was destroyed because of the flooding of the sea water”, Ben Youssef said.
Ramli is the Arabic word for “sandy”, the farms cover around 200 hectares or 500 acres and support around 300 people.
They were listed last year in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) list of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems.
The FAO has said the ramli system was “unique not only in Tunisia but in the whole world”.
But farmers regret their products lack formal certification, despite the FAO designation.
“This ingenious system is dependent on certain preventive actions that must be put in place to combat the effects of climate change, including erosion that will be accelerated and the rapid rise in sea level. Of course, sea level rising does not happen overnight. It’s a relatively long rise. But after a while, if we do nothing now, these crops will be gone in maybe 100 years”, Raoudha Gafrej, an expert on water resources and climate change said.
Ramli produce is said to have a particular taste, and is in high demand both locally and in Tunis.
Farmers contend with growing threats to their unique farming system, like climate change and development.