Water scarcity: a catalyst for sustainability around the Mediterranean

Date: 10 April 2020

It is common knowledge that the Mediterranean is one of the most water-scarce regions in the world, and that the manifold impacts of climate change can only worsen this dire situation. However, we also have the choice to move beyond fatalism by adopting a “the problem is an opportunity” approach. In this case, water scarcity is a useful prism through which to approach and tackle urgent environmental and socio-economic challenges around the Mediterranean. Seeking inspiration in tangible solutions that are already yielding results is a great place to start. These small-scale solutions involve a diverse spectrum of individuals who are committed to making a difference on the ground.

Greening the desert in the Sinai using biodynamic agricultural techniques ©SEKEM Initiative

As we can observe in nature, resilience is reinforced and builds upon a diverse set of complementary solutions – rather than one size fits all models. The urgency is therefore to integrate rather than to segregate by cross-fertilizing governmental, scientific, entrepreneurial and civil society approaches to water scarcity. We dispose of the technology and know-how to make a real difference when it comes to water scarcity. The crucial next step is to share knowledge and solutions throughout the region and amongst all sectors of society in order to foment a fundamental cultural shift in how we interact with water and nature.

In our region, water scarcity is intimately linked to human-induced land degradation. These destructive processes are, in essence, a collapse of the basic ecological functions of a given ecosystem due to water cycle disruption, arable soil degradation and loss through erosion, and the reduction of vegetative cover and biodiversity, amongst others. The resulting loss of livelihoods can lead to social instability, poverty, migration and conflict, while degraded ecosystems become increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather events such as droughts, fires and flooding. Restoring basic ecological functions in the numerous degraded areas of the Mediterranean is a top priority, in line with the upcoming UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030):

“We all depend on healthy ecosystems for food and energy, water and biodiversity. Their continued degradation contributes to climate change and enhances the risk of severe ecological disasters. Widespread loss of function in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems will be catastrophic for our planet and a huge setback on progress made towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. It’s time to rebuild what has been lost.”
UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration

Numerous such examples exist all around the Mediterranean. For instance, the SEKEM Initiative located close to Cairo, Egypt, has been making a difference for 40 years. By applying sustainable water management principles, large-scale biodynamic and agro-ecological techniques, and engaging in extensive soil creation through composting of all available organic matter, SEKEM has been able to create a productive green oasis in an area that is otherwise threatened by desertification. Moreover, the initiative created and trained a network of farmers in Egypt that apply these sustainable land use techniques, thereby combining production with regeneration in water-scarce ecosystems.

Tamera’s Water Retention Landscape Alentejo, Portugal: using ecological design to allow humans to live with, rather than off the land. ©️Tamera Healing Biotope 1

The Tamera Healing Biotope – located in the Alentejo region of southern Portugal – has also made significant steps in combating water scarcity at the local level since the early 1990s. Tamera’s water retention landscape has gained international recognition as a means of re-greening areas threatened by desertification. This effort is a human-made but nature-inspired network of water retention lakes, basins and ponds design along ecological principles. Since the creation and expansion of this landscape, the positive effects on the surface and ground hydrology of the area have yielded new opportunities for sustainable food production and landscape restoration.

Finally, peri-urban and urban areas are important vectors for combating water scarcity as well. Treated wastewater reuse and rainwater harvesting are fairly simple solutions to improve urban water efficiency and encourage urban agriculture and landscape restoration, with beneficial effects on water and food security, urban biodiversity, the urban heat island effect, amongst others. Organic food production systems that rely on closed-loop water cycles (hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics) as well as water-efficient drip irrigation for urban gardens (including on rooftops) can create numerous green employment, training, and educational opportunities for Mediterranean youth.

So let us switch our thinking and approach water scarcity as an admittedly daunting but also inspiring challenge for us to do better!

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