Written by Rana Hajj
Photo credit: IUCN| Francesca Ardau
NNA - Temperatures in the Mediterranean basin have been rapidly increasing and exceeding the global average, hence posing an immense threat on the region’s wetlands, which are described by environmental experts as “the heart of life”. Consequently, serious social, economic, and environmental repercussions are expected to affect millions of people, according to a new study by Mediterranean Experts on Climate and Environmental Change (MedECC network), which groups more than 600 scientists.
The study has declared the Med region as the mostly impacted by climate change worldwide, as temperatures have risen by 1.5 degrees Celsius from the preindustrial period, above the global average of 1.1 degrees Celsius. By 2040, temperatures are expected to rise in the region by 2.2 degrees Celsius, with an additional increase in some areas of the basin hitting as high as 3.8 degrees Celsius by 2100.
“With the Mediterranean region warming 20% faster than the rest of the world, the need for wetlands has become more pressing than ever, especially in their capacity as nature-based solutions to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change,” Medwet Executive Secretary, Alessio Satta, said as addressing a group of Environmental Journalists from 14 Med countries during a press trip to Sardinia, Italy, organized by the IUCN Center for Mediterranean Cooperation, in collaboration with Medwet and Medsea Foundation.
“Nature-based solutions include the preservation of functional ecosystems in good ecological health, the improvement of ecosystems management for a sustainable use by human activities, as well as the restoration of degraded ecosystems and the creation of new ones,” says Medwet’s Satta.
“The Med basin will experience a big paradox -- reduced rainfall, coupled with an increased risk of floods,” the Medwet expert added, warning that one major challenge in the Med region will become water availability. The number of people in the Mediterranean region considered to be “water poor” is expected to rise to over 250 million in the next 20 years, from 180 million in 2013.
Satta also shared a startling fact from the MedECC study which says that the Mediterranean Sea is warming faster than global averages. “It will be 1.8-3.5°C hotter in some parts by 2100. Global average sea levels will rise between 52-190cm by 2100, almost one meter higher than the world average,” he explained.
For his part, Giovanni De Falco, a scientist at the National Research Institute (CNR) of Sardinia, said that the adaptation of coastal systems to climate change heavily depended on resilience. He mentioned the importance of identifying coastal areas vulnerable to climate change (flooding, extreme events, acidification), as well as preserving semi-natural beaches and the natural components of the coastal system that favor coastal resilience, like dunes and ecosystems.
De Falco also underlined the importance of refraining from tampering with spaces needed for beach systems to adapt to changes, and the availability of compatible sediment reservoirs.
All of the aforementioned factors have put wetlands in the Med region at stake, not to mention that approximately half of them have already been destroyed by humans within the last 50 years due to mass tourism, uncontrolled urbanization, industrial development, and intensive agriculture.
Most recent studies have shown that Oristano in Sardinia, Italy, is one of the first Mediterranean areas that will be severely affected by widespread flooding as sea levels rise; by 2100, local towns that are today home to around 35,000 people will be under water. In the meantime, Medsea Foundation, in cooperation with MAVA, has been leading the Maristani initiative in this area, in which thirteen municipalities promote conservation actions, in addition to three other locations in the Mediterranean basin -- Tunisia, Montenegro and Albania-- to boost their resilience.
Shifting to the Lebanese scene, Environmental Geosciences Specialist, Samer Al-Hachem, of the Department of Natural Resources Protection at Lebanon’s Ministry of Environment, explains that healthy Mediterranean wetlands are important to help mitigate climate change because they help manage extreme weather events through the multiple services they provide.
“Important wetland functions include water storage, groundwater recharge, storm protection, flood mitigation, shoreline stabilization, erosion control, and retention of carbon, nutrients, sediments and pollutants,” he explains.
“Wetlands sequester some of the largest stores of carbon on the planet, but when disturbed or warmed, they release the three major heat-trapping greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Therefore, protecting wetlands from human disturbance helps limit greenhouse gases’ emission in the atmosphere,” adds Al-Hachem, who also serves as Ramsar’s national focal point in Lebanon.
“The benefits that wetlands provide to people and local economies are many. Wetlands improve water quality in nearby rivers and streams, and thus have considerable value as filters for future drinking water. Wetlands can also play a role in reducing the frequency and intensity of floods by acting as natural buffers, soaking up and storing a significant amount of floodwater. Wetland networks also are key corridors and stepping stones allowing species to move to cooler areas and thus adapt to rising temperatures,” he added.
Al- Hachem went on to explain that due to the fact that natural wetlands were so effective at removing pollutants from water that flows through them, engineers and scientists have been constructing systems that replicate some of the functions of natural wetlands. These constructed “treatment wetlands” use natural processes involving wetland vegetation, soils, and their associated microbial life to improve water quality and to treat wastewater.
“Wetlands are often inviting places for popular recreational activities including hiking, fishing, bird watching, photography and hunting, fisheries, as well as wildlife habitats,” he added, stressing the importance of developing sustainable tourism, industrial, and agricultural strategies that optimize the aesthetic and cultural values of wetlands, as well as developing and implementing management plans for all Ramsar Sites, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
As for Lebanon’s wetlands, Al-Hashem said that they were being assessed through: field visits, Earth Observation Techniques, serious steps to implement the Ramsar strategic plan 2016-2024, as well as Medwet strategic plan 2016-2020.
“Lebanon currently has 4 sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Sites), with a total area of 1,080 hectares – the Ammiq wetland, Tyre Coast Nature Reserve, Raas El Chaqaa – and Palm Islands Nature Reserve, which is the largest wetland in Lebanon, extending over 420 ha, and is being conserved through the implementation of a management plan by the Nature Reserve committee. Currently, Hima Anjar/Kfarzabad wetland site is being reviewed by the Ramsar Secretariat in order to be designated as a new (5th national site) RAMSAR site (Wetland of International Importance).
Among the challenges facing Wetlands in Lebanon are climate change, urbanization and urban sprawl, pollution (Industrial activities, wastewater, solid waste…), non-eco-friendly tourism, random agricultural activities, groundwater extractions, hunting, as well as lack in financial support and equipment.
“In order to protect wetlands sites in Lebanon, the Ministry of Environment is working on the establishment of the National Wetlands Network and the implementation of the necessary steps for the designation of new Ramsar sites,” Al-Hachem said, adding that in addition to working on wetlands, the Department of Natural Resources Protection at the Ministry of Environment has initiated the first steps to designated sites as National Geoparks.
“This will be followed by the necessary efforts to implement the IUCN MIDAs guidelines (harmonizing the management of Multi-Internationally Designated Areas: RAMSAR Sites, World Heritage Sites, Biosphere Reserves and UNESCO Global Geoparks),” Al-Hachem explained.
For his part, Prof. Amin Shaban, Water and Resources Management and Remote Sensing Reasearch Director at Lebanon’s National Council for Scientific Research, said that Wetlands in Lebanon were majorly used as a main water source that fed different regions like the one in Tyre and Ammiq, adding that they are 100 per cent potable.
“I consider wetlands an essential parameter or gauge that serves as an indicator of the status of water in Lebanon. Some wetlands have gone completely dry in some regions, and this was an outright indicator of water shortage and drought in these areas. Some reappear in winter due to rain water, but some others have gone completely dry all throughout the year,” says Shaaban.
“Ras Al-Ein Wetland located in Tyre along the Southern Lebanese Coast still enjoys an abundance of water in comparison to the currently dry Ras Al-Shakaa wetland located along the Northern coast of Lebanon. Both are registered Ramsar sites, and comparative analysis between these two wetlands has helped us understand the mechanism of the underground water movement,” explains Shaban.
Ammiq wetland, a major destination for bird watching and an important spot for migrating birds in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, has also been suffering its share of water shortage despite the fact that water used to be retained for longer periods of times in the past. 80% of the birds that used to migrate to Ammiq no longer do so, not to mention that this has also majorly affected the region which now witnesses less tourism, as well as irrigation.
“In my opinion, the primary reason why wetlands have been drying up in Lebanon is due to their misuse by human beings rather than climate change – the random use of water is a primary cause in Lebanon’s case. Moreover, when experts come to assess the situation of a certain dry wetland in Lebanon, they unearth the changes that have affected its ecosystem – migrating birds, dying fish, affected flora and fauna, etc.. – rather than identify the source of the problem itself,” Shaban added.
“For instance, Ammiq wetland, which already suffers from scarce snow feeding nowadays, is expected to suffer even more now that nearby quarries in Mdayrej – Dahr Al-Baidar are being randomly activated -- along with a cement factory. Quarries block the route of the underground springs whilst on their way to feed a certain wetland, hence leading to the blockage of tunnels feeding it with water,” Shaban elaborated.
Shaban finally regretted that despite the fact that the National Scientific Research Center has been sounding the alarm on such environmental calamities through scores of studies and research, all efforts have proven to be futile at the absence of all the involved stakeholders such as the farmers, industrialists, and even water consumers.
Despite the dauntless endeavors of environmental experts to rescue wetlands across the Mediterranean region, they continue to be threatened by unsustainable human activities; this directly impacts the human well-being and deprives future generations of the multiple benefits that wetlands provide.
The ball is now in the court of decision makers to make a positive difference and ensure that wetlands are used wisely to deliver a sustainable future for people and biodiversity in the Mediterranean.