In search of meaning
In another life, Yousra Madani devoted all her time and energy to organising high-profile sporting events and producing associated prime time television coverage – but then somehow, fate intervened.
“Football, tennis, athletics, marathons – we did everything. It was a lot of fun but after nearly ten years, I realised it wasn’t fulfilling anymore. I wanted to use my skills to do something meaningful, and find a way to apply the budgets we had in events to creating positive change in society.”
After volunteering for the Aldebaran Project to set up astronomy clubs in schools in collaboration with UNESCO’s Associated Schools Network, Yousra joined WWF North Africa. Finding herself responsible for hosting the organisation’s international delegation to COP 22 in Marrakech in 2016 – the UN follow up meeting to the seminal Paris Agreement on climate – she had a demanding initiation. But it allowed her to shine, and then win approval to establish the WWF North Africa office in 2018.
Setting up the WWF office in Casablanca is probably the thing I’m most proud of. In our first two years, we’ve achieved a lot, especially in wetland conservation. Between 2018 and 2019, we’ve helped secure 14 new Ramsar sites in Morocco!
Morocco’s Sebou river basin covers 40,000 km2, contains critical wetlands, forests and lakes, and provides water for 6.2 million people but this critical natural system is in crisis, threatened by excessive agricultural water use, industrial pollution, and overgrazing. Tackling the crisis is a priority.
“Everyone in Morocco knows Lake Aoua – it’s iconic, a place that everyone visits and a home to birds and wildlife. But now because of what’s happening in the basin, it’s bone dry. It’s shocking. My biggest dream is to see it full of water and life again.”
Fortunately, there’s hope. In late 2019, WWF and Yousra were instrumental in the launch of the Sebou Water Fund – a sustainable financing mechanism through which major downstream water consumers, including corporates, as well as public and private donors, invest in upstream restoration designed to improve water quality and supply.
“It’s based on the principle that it’s better to prevent problems at source than address them downstream. At first, there was a lot of scepticism across government, the private sector, and civil society, but when we took government partners to Kenya, along with funders and media, to see the Tana-Nairobi Water Fund in action and meet with Kenyan Water Authorities, things began to change. The business case for maintaining ecological security was clear. In just five years, through integrated basin management, the Tana-Nairobi Water Fund has brought benefits for wildlife and for thousands of farmers and producers living in the watershed. So, we came home and adapted the model to local conditions in Morocco.”
The first of its kind in the Mediterranean, the Sebou Water Fund caters for different donor priorities – from wetlands and biodiversity to sustainable agriculture and cultural heritage – and supports pilot projects across the basin, including one focused on restoring Aoua Lake. And each Moroccan Dirham invested in restoration activities could, over time, return twice its value through delivering improved ecosystem services, including increased agricultural yields, healthier wetlands, and enhanced carbon sequestration.
Determined and daring
Yousra attributes WWF’s success in setting up the fund to persistence, long-term support from MAVA, and being able to bridge divides, bringing together different stakeholders, and harnessing the love and care of local people for their region.
“We’re working on an MOU to secure collaboration and in-kind contributions from government departments. Getting to this level of collaboration has taken a long time but the exchange trip to Kenya was a real catalyst – it forged friendships and a genuine willingness to work together. After the trip, in addition to the Sebou Basin Agency, both the Water and Forest Department, and the Water Department of the Ministry of Equipment and Water, joined the Sebou Water Fund, followed a few months later by representatives from the Ministries of Interior, Agriculture and Tourism.”
Joining WWF without a background in conservation or much knowledge of the public sector, Yousra had a steep learning curve but had faith that hard work would bring results.
I just jumped in without thinking. I took it as a challenge and adventure. When people see you’re committed and offering solutions, you build trust. There’s willingness to help everywhere, you just have to find the right person, and then dare to do things.
How Yousra is contributing to MAVA's mission
Find out more about how WWF and Yousra are contributing to MAVA’s action plan on integrated river basin management in the Mediterranean.