Climate change and water resources in the Mediterranean

The Mediterranean region, a rich and fragile mosaic of landscapes and ecosystems host one of
the richest biodiversity of the world. Water resources availability is becoming a hot topic for the
region as the consumption levels are exceeding water resources availability. This trend
associated to the global warming will lead to the unsteadiness of sensitive ecosystems of the
Mediterranean that would add disparity between northern and southern countries.
Spain owns the European record figure of dead people due to floods between 1990-2000 with
losses over 200 millions euros per year.
Because of the threat posed to ecosystems and people by climate change, IUCN, is not only
promoting mitigation of the greenhouse effect gas, but is also developing adaptation
strategies so that water resources can be preserved.

Mounting evidence in the Mediterranean, a threat for water resources
Climate change is here and will be with us for a long time to come. It will have a significant
impact on water resources and their management. Along the last decade, the direct impacts of
climate change registered in the Mediterranean basin consist in lower levels of precipitations, a
modification of the intensity and distribution of the precipitations, an increase of floods and a
raise of temperatures. One emerging response can be defined: Water professionals and
societies will need to adapt to climate change
In a short and long term view, Climate change will amplify its substantial destabilizing effect on
the hydrological cycle and will have a pervasive influence on the future demand, supply and
quality of fresh water resources in the region. It will add pressure on water and environment
resources and coastal systems currently under stress. In the Mediterranean, water resources
represent the most precious goods especially for the southern countries; the combination of the
aridity of the region with climate change impacts will particularly threat ecosystems processes,
natural resources and communities.

Status of fresh water resources in the Mediterranean

Fresh water resources in the Mediterranean are under increasing pressure in terms of both
quantity and quality.
§ Northern Mediterranean countries with higher, more regular rainfall also face
climate-induced natural hazards, flooding and water shortages in basins susceptible
to periodic drought. As a consequence, human and natural systems sensitive to
water availability and water quality are increasingly stressed, or coming under
threat. Those countries will have to face water quality degradation and meet the
increasing needs of environmental protection and restoration.
§ In South and East Mediterranean counties where utilization is now approaching
hydrological limits, and the combined effects of demographic growth, increased
economic activity and improved standards of living have increased competition for
remaining resources. Water resources are already overexploited or are becoming
so with likely future aggravation where demographic growth is strong. The Eastern
countries will be more sensitive to short term or structural shortages, in certain
Mediterranean vulnerability to climate change
Many events associated to climate change threat the balance of the Mediterranean
ecosystems. The projected impacts of climate change will create a greater variability and
extreme weather events, wetter winters and drier summers and hotter summers and heat
The changes in temperatures and in precipitations levels and distribution will directly affect
the water demand, quality and watershed. Pollution will be intensified by runoff in
catchments and from urban areas. Rivers will have lower flows particularly in summer, and
the sea temperature, salinity and concentration in CO2, nitrates and phosphates will also be
affected. The most visible impact will be the floods which will be higher and more frequent.
The changes in the frequency of extreme events might be the first and most important
change registered in the Mediterranean. That will directly impact the vulnerability of the
poorest countries.
Floods are the most common type of natural hazard in the Mediterranean region, after the
earthquakes: only in the last decades all the Mediterranean countries had to defend from
some massive flood and its associated catastrophic effects.
The case of Algeria

Algeria is the largest country in the Maghreb region. In this country the significant exposure
to recurring natural hazards (e.g., floods, earthquake, drought) emphasises the vulnerability
of the poor population because of the recurring social, financial and economic losses.
Algerian urban environment is characterised by rapid urbanisation and environmental
degradation. Poor or non-existent drainage, water supply, sanitation, sewer and solid waste
disposal systems, further enhance the deterioration and destabilisation of buildings and
infrastructure. Deforestation, the elimination of vegetation cover, due to uncontrolled and
often illegal development has contributed to further erosion, thus increasing hazard
exposure. On November 2001, severe rains accompanied by floods and mud-flows affected
fourteen villages in the northern part of Algeria. The disaster caused the loss of about 900
lives, approximately 95 percent of which occurred in the capital of Algiers (specifically in the
Oued Koriche catchment area). Damage and loss of property were considerable across
sectors, amounting to about US$300 million (according to the Government sources). Since
this disaster, there is a new way of thinking about flood disaster management in Algeria,
particularly in urban areas.

How climate change will affect water resources?

Healthy ecosystems are fundamentally dependent on receiving appropriate amounts of
water, of a certain quality, at certain times – either as river flows, groundwater, or a
combination. Climate change will put additional pressures on stressed ecosystems.
§ As a result of the temperature warming, the water demand will increase. The
evaporation from water bodies will reduce the available supply and the increased
evapotranspiration from crops and natural vegetation as well as the water demand for
irrigation or industrial cooling systems will add pressure on water resources.
§ Water quality will be affected by higher runoff which will increase pollution due to
agriculture chemicals and less capacity to assimilate pollution with lower flows. The
intensification of rainfall will primarily be responsible for soil erosion, leaching of
agricultural chemicals and runoff of urban and livestock wastes and nutrients into water
§ Watershed conditions will suffer from erosion and desertification processes due to
hotter and dryer summers, more frequent and prolonged droughts coupled with rainfall
events. The higher temperatures would dry soils and increase salinization and generate
a higher incidence of wind-blown soil erosion.

Adaptation: the IUCN response to climate change
Although governments and businesses are starting to take responsibility for their
emissions, we are now past the point where the warming of the Earth can be avoided.
Worse still, the emissions reductions that have been agreed so far are too modest to
have any significant impact on the warming trend. Since we cannot prevent all climate
change, we must attempt to adapt to it. While more aggressive reductions in greenhouse
gas emissions are undoubtedly needed, effective and efficient sustainable development
depends upon climate change adaptation becoming a part of natural resource policy and
practice. We need to adopt an adaptive management style adjusting our actions based
on learning.
IUCN has developed 3 possible strategies for addressing climate change in the
Mediterranean region.
Reducing the risk to hydrological variability and floods
An increase in the occurrence of floods, droughts and other extreme weather events due
to climate change poses a considerable threat to national economies and sustainable
By reinforcing flood and drought preparedness programmes, introducing management
measure to regulate runoff, erosion and sediment and by modifying infrastructure to cope
safely and perform in higher floods, water managers will reduce the risk to hydrological
variability. One other interesting tool could be the increasing of infiltration and capacity of
urban storm water systems which play a major role when floods occur.

Closing the demand-supply gap in water resources
In the Mediterranean water demand now exceeds or threatens to outstrip sustainable
levels of supply by overstepping the renewable levels of ground water resources. This put
under pressure the ecosystems of the region which will particularly impact the livelihoods
of Mediterranean societies.
Some possible responses can consist in introducing greater flexibility to allocate between
competing demands and matching water quality with demand , optimizing existing water
regulation infrastructure (operations and retrofit) to most efficient uses and ongoing
changes in water allocation priorities. A better balance between efficiency measures
(recycling, conservation) and new supply measures (through water harvesting and
desalinisation) as well as a combination of two possible water sources (surface water and
ground water) would constitute other ways to bridge the demand supply gap in water

Balancing human and nature needs

Protection and restoration of ecosystems that provide critical land and water resources
and services are urgently needed to maintain and restore natural capacities that support
the protection of people and assets against increased climate variability and extreme
It will be necessary for example to introduce policies that recognise environment needs in
water allocation, to recognize and sustain ecological services from rivers and wetlands
(e.g. for ground water recharge and water purification) and to adapt minimum
environmental flows provisions (surface and ground water) to the seasons and to the
water cycle in wetlands.
IUCN action to address climate change at the global and local levels

In 2002, five regional dialogues have been held in Central America, Southern Africa,
West Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and the Mediterranean. These dialogues looked at
the need for and possible elements of an analytical framework to address climate change
in the context of managing adverse impacts on water resources and wetlands systems in
each region. Adaptation Here it was envisaged that key information needs would be
Climate change adaptation options would be identified and evaluated in the context of
sustainable management of water resources and projections for climate change.
The adaptation frameworks for action would include steps that could be undertaken by
NGOs, the private sector, community organizations and government agencies and
Examples of actions to adapt to climate change in the Mediterranean

In Greece, the government has begun to inform farmers about the potential impacts of
climate change. In France, drought preparedness and prevention schemes are part of the
legal framework on water resources development. The French government is also seeking
to speed up the implementation of plans for the prevention of risks and to improve flood
warning systems. Upstream measures such as reforestation are being implemented to
prevent floods as part of catchment management. Morocco has taken steps to increase
the number of wastewater plants and wetlands protection measures to reduce current
vulnerability to water scarcity. In Italy, actions linked to the 2002 Environmental action
strategy have focused on three priorities – water conservation, water quality, and
sustainable water pricing. In Cyprus, measures have been implemented to increase the
efficiency of water supply and develop non-conventional sources of water, such as
desalination, which now makes up more than 10% of fresh water supply. Spain launched
a plan for Forest Hydrology Restoration for which actions on soil degradation can be
carried out in order to recover the ecological functions of forests soils in water cycle.

The means of identifying and implementing measures in action programmes would be based on
principles of dialogue and partnership between government, business, civil society and water
users at all three levels. Collaborative processes are required between the different sectors
In most Mediterranean countries, institutional coordination mechanisms are already in place
that could be used to initiate national level processes. These include the focal points for
UNFCC (United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change) or IPCC
(Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) responses and Ramsar, as well as
interdepartmental panels or working groups, and in some cases, Commissions that have
already established to study and coordinate responses to climate change issues.
One clear message from the Mediterranean dialogue is the longer this
task is left unattended in the Mediterranean, the more costly and
disruptive it may be for society and the environment. Small changes now
can make a huge difference over time, as the beneficial effects
Source: IUCN

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