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Climate change in Mediterranean: ‘Wetlands are the answer’

Ahram Weekly reports from Morocco on the importance of wetlands to combat the effects of climate change in the Mediterranean region

Mahmoud Bakr , Ahmed Kotb , Wednesday 18 Dec 2019
‘Wetlands are the answer’
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Since the Mediterranean region is the most affected place in the world by climate change, warming at 20 per cent faster than the world’s average rate, raising awareness to fight the effects of climate change has become a necessity.

Already suffering from water scarcity which hinders sustainable development, Mediterranean countries are currently home to 180 million people who are considered water poor -- each consuming no more than 100 cubic metres per year -- and the number is expected to reach 250 million by 2025. Five hundred million people live in these countries.

The Global Water Partnership Mediterranean (GWP-Med), along with the Mediterranean Information Office for Environment, Culture and Sustainable Development (MIO-ECSDE), the MAVA Foundation for Nature, the International Water Management Institute and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, all organised a workshop in Rabat, Morocco, for journalists and civil society organisations from around the Mediterranean to raise awareness on the region’s nature-based solutions to combat climate change.

One of the most efficient nature-based solutions to fight the effects of climate change, as highlighted by the discussion, are coastal wetlands. Wetlands are, as defined by the Ramsar Convention on wetlands, areas of marsh, fen, peat land or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is fresh, brackish or salt.

Chairman of the Circle of Mediterranean Journalists for Environment and Sustainable Development (COMJESD) Moh Rejdali said during the discussion that wetlands in the Mediterranean have decreased by 48 per cent from 1970 to 2013, adding the situation is getting worse because of climate change and continued depletion of natural resources.

“About 55 per cent of the Mediterranean population live in coastal cities, which represents big pressure on the environment and biodiversity,” Rejdali pointed out, adding that 320 million tourists had visited the Mediterranean countries in 2016 and the number is expected to reach 500 million by 2050. Around 50 per cent of these tourists visited coastal cities.

Water drainage, pollution, unsustainable use, invasive species and disrupted flows from dams are among the reasons behind disappearing wetlands, vanishing three times faster than forests.

“We need to work collectively to protect and restore wetlands for better welfare of the population in the region,” Rejdali stressed.

Michael Scoullos, chairman of MIO-ECSDE and GWP-Med, also stressed that Mediterranean countries need the preservation and better use of coastal wetlands more than ever because of their importance in fighting the effects of climate change.

“We need nature-based solutions that are sustainable,” Scoullos said. “Wetlands are the answer.”

Scoullos noted that developmental projects and the extension of infrastructure networks have contributed to the damaging of wetlands areas, in addition to agricultural activities and industrial pollution.

There is a lack of understanding of the benefits wetlands provide to the environment and humanity, he said, adding that they can be of monetary value as well.

Scoullos believes that politicians and decision makers need to realise the importance of preserving wetlands and making better use of them. “We need modern policies under water, energy, food ecosystem (WEFE) and a nexus approach which highlights the interdependencies between climatic change wetlands and the water, energy and food sectors,” he said.

“Enhancing the Mediterranean climate’s resilience through nature-based solutions should be a priority in the region,” said Marianne Courouble, policy officer at the Mediterranean Wetlands Initiative (MedWet).

Courouble highlighted the importance of awareness campaigns like “Off You Map”, a MedWet initiative, which raises awareness for the critical role coastal wetlands play as resilient nature-based solutions in the fight against climate change, and advocates for a more effective conservation of these biodiversity and culture-rich natural habitats.

Nature Based Solutions (NBS) are defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.

Courouble pointed out that inherent water scarcity, concentration of economic activities in coastal areas and reliance on climate-sensitive agriculture all make the Mediterranean region one of the world’s climate change hotspots.

The Mediterranean has been identified as one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to the impact of global warming by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC has forecast a global temperature rise of 2-3°C by 2050, and a rise of 3-5°C by 2100 for the Mediterranean.

Conventional infrastructure alone, Courouble said, will not be able to cope with this new, highly dynamic and challenging context, which implies a significant level of uncertainty. Robust but flexible solutions are needed to help societies adapt.

Courouble said the world needs to manage coastal and marine ecosystems, including wetlands, in a sustainable manner to enhance their capacity as carbon sinks and buffers, restore depleted fish stocks and protect marine biodiversity.

However, Courouble added, NBS implementation typically faces the barrier of “the big unknowns, resistance to change and a business-as-usual mindset” that favours well-known technologies, such as traditional grey infrastructure, over more unconventional green or green-grey approaches, which can be perceived to imply a higher level of uncertainty and therefore risk, particularly in terms of performance, costs, ownership and accountability for maintenance.

Another common challenge pointed out by Courouble is the often complex bureaucratic process that project implementers face when starting the formal procedures for obtaining a permit. There are also barriers to securing funding for the implementation of NBS from investors, if resources prove insufficient, she added.

Hammou Laamrani, senior expert on water, energy, food security and climate change nexus in the Arab League, said that heat waves will be more severe and frequent, leading to more frequent extreme droughts, while irregular precipitation will lead to more soil dryness and diminished water availability.

Laamrani said that global warming beyond 2°C would also result in a decrease of at least 12 per cent of the Mediterranean biome areas. A biome area is a community of plants and animals that have common characteristics for the environment they exist in.

“That is why we need more mitigation and adaptation efforts urgently,” Laamrani stressed. Therefore, he added, wetlands are very important to preserve and develop. “We need better governance of these areas across the region, while carrying out projects that are economically beneficial and create job opportunities,” he added.

“Solutions for climate change need to be interlinked,” said Sarra Touzi, senior programme officer at GWP-Med. For example, Touzi said, we have to think about solving water issues while thinking about renewable energy projects.

Policies and actions need to be more coherent across all sectors, she stressed.

Since 1972 when the first United Nations convention on the environment was held, Touzi said, it has been estimated that about 60 per cent of mammal birds, fish and reptiles have been lost. “This is going to be exacerbated by climate change,” she added.

Nature-based solutions like wetlands can greatly help, she said, and they are flexible, cost-efficient, inclusive and long term oriented.

Emad Adli, general coordinator of the Arab Network for Environment and Development, told Al-Ahram Weekly that water is a top trans-boundary issue in the Mediterranean.

Adli also said the Mediterranean region needs to abide by international commitments for environmental issues to achieve sustainable development goals, while taking into account local and regional interests.

Upgrading education systems to link them with sustainable development goals and create an understanding of pressing environmental issues is very important, Scoullos stressed. “We need to think about future generations of the Mediterranean,” he added.

Parliamentarians, government officials, experts and representatives of civil society gathered on Tuesday at the Parliament of the Kingdom of Morocco for the 14th meeting of the Circle of Mediterranean Parliamentarians for Sustainable Development which was held under the theme “launching a new decade of sustainable development in the Mediterranean.”

Habib Al-Malki, president of Morocco’s parliament, stressed that water and food have become a centre of conflicts amid rapid increase in population and limited resources.

“The international community as a whole has to find responsible and decisive answers to these problems,” Al-Malki added.

Participants agreed on the need to strengthen efficient governance and promote a green, circular and possibly carbon neutral economy based on sound scientific evidence-based decision-making, by prioritising integrated environmental planning and management.

They also stressed the need to recognise and upgrade the security of the Water-Energy-Food-Ecosystems Nexus (WEFE Nexus) at the national and regional levels, with due promotion of renewable energies and use of non-conventional water resources.

Targeting agriculture and tourism, participants recommended, these two major economic sectors of the region adapt in an integrative way appropriate priorities, strategies and practices, accompanied by concrete measures.

“National policies and international commitments should be subject to a legislative framework strictly followed and shared by countries in the region to achieve the desired sustainable development,” Al-Malki concluded.

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