Water Stress in the Mediterranean Basin

Dust storm sweeping across Syria, the Mafraq region of Jordan, and part of Turkey's Mediterranean coast (7th of September, 2015). Credit: NASA Earth Observatory- Aqua Modis
Global pressures on finite water resources have grown rapidly over the past decades as a result of population growth, increasing per capita consumption and industrial agriculture. Overexploitation of groundwater in agricultural regions of particular concern are north-western India, the north China plain, the Great Plains of North America and the Central Valley in California (Rockström et al. 2014). Climate change is already impacting the number of people living in absolute water scarcity (Schewe et al. 2013). Water scarcity is a recurrent imbalance that arises from an overuse of water resources, caused by consumption being significantly higher than the natural renewable availability. Water scarcity can be aggravated by water pollution and drought.

River basins, with withdrawals exceeding more than 40–60% of available water resources, experience severe water scarcity. Many economically important river basins around the world are suffering from unsustainable withdrawals of water that impinge on ecological needs or have surpassed ecological limits such as the Amu and Syr Darya, the Indus, the Nile, the Colorado, the Orange, the Lerma Chapala, the Murray Darling and the Yellow River basin.

Global hydroregions - population pressures on water security


Source: Meybeck et al. 2013

The map above shows a relative pressure indicator (incorporating population density and runoff) for river basins in different hydroregions of the world. We can see that dry belts (medium density and very low runoff) around the equator and northern mid-latitude (high density and medium runoff) have the highest pressure on water security, while hydroregions with minimal pressure are due to high runoff and/or low population density (e.g. Amazon and Orinoco basin, Boreal hydroregions, Northern Australia basins) (Meybeck et al. 2013). Water security pressure range from the most to the least densely populated: Asia > Europe > North America > Africa > South America > Australia. Interesting to note is the difference between the “Old World” (Asia, MENA, Europe) and the “New World” (Americas and Australia).

Overall Water Risk around the Mediterranean

Shows level of overall water risk (physical quantity, quality and access).
Source: Aqueduct-Water Risk Atlas

In the map above we see which countries and city regions around the Mediterranean that suffer most acutely from overall water risk. London, Budapest, Bucharest, Valencia, Naples, Odessa, Donetsk, Sofia, Istanbul all show signs of high overall water risk due to population pressure. Countries in the dry belt of North Africa and the Middle East (MENA) all show signs of high overall water risk, either from depletion of water resources, pollution or lack of access to clean drinking water.

Baseline Water Stress around the Mediterranean

Shows baseline water stress (the ratio of total annual withdrawals to total available renewable supply). Source: Aqueduct-Water Risk Atlas

If we look at baseline water stress defined as the ratio of total annual water withdrawals to total available renewable supply (accounting for upstream consumptive use) we find that stress is extremely high (dark red) in parts of Morocco, Tunisia, Spain, Italy, Malta, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Ukraine, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Azerbaijan, and Iran. If we compare the map above to the one below, showing population pressure in the Mediterranean region (in 2009), we find that baseline water stress occurs around many of the big cities as expected.

Population density around the Mediterranean

Source: UNEP-Grid (2009)

City regions along the Mediterranean east coast in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt have high population density in close proximity to each other. This at the same time as they suffer from extremely high baseline water stress is like begging for a conflict. Italy, Spain, Greece and Malta will suffer in the future if they don't do something about their unsustainable water situation immediately. Morocco, north Algeria and Tunisia will also have to address their water situation.

Access to Water in Europe and MENA

Shows level of water risk related to access (% of population without access to safe drinking water). Source: Aqueduct-Water Risk Atlas

People may not perceive water stress as an issue depending on access to water defined as % of population without access to improved drinking water. Here we see the situation being severe (>20%) in countries undergoing conflict such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and large parts of North Africa. In the map below we can see that Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Cyprus all have desalination plants (red ring). This requires lots of energy, most likely from fossil fuels, that many countries can’t afford to spend and it only furthers global warming. Relying on desalinated water is a very risky strategy.

Water infrastructure around the Mediterranean Basin

Source: UNEP-Grid (2009)

From all the above pictures it is not difficult to figure out that water stress, together with climate change and peaking fossil fuels will lead to migration and conflict without any foresight or planning ahead. Water is essential for all life, without sufficient water resources people have no option but to move as ecosystems dry out. Relying on groundwater pumping and fossil aquifers with little respect for ecological limits or plans for collecting rainwater is a disaster in the making, of which we are seeing the first signs. Furthermore, explosive population growth in the MENA-region following their oil boom have lead to far more people than the arid landscape can provide for. The only reason this population increase was even possible was due to fossil aquifers now empty and massive amounts of energy from oil that has been used to desalinate water from the ocean. But these are finite resources. Thus the crisis we now see in the Middle East was foreseeable, it was only ever a question of when, not if. The German Advisory Council on Global Change reported on these risk already in 2007. Most other European countries must also have been aware of these risks. A little planning could have gone a long way but all we see now instead is chaos.

Migration pattern due to ecological degradation and climate change

Areas where drought, desertification, and other forms of water scarcity are estimated are expected to worsen and could contribute to people migrating away from these areas to secure their livelihoods. Main projected trajectories are added where climate change-related migration can be expected in the future. (Source: Bogardi and Warner, 2009).

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