Ulcinj Salina, Montenegro. © MedWet/C.Amico
Natural solutions for a better future
Today’s global society faces a range of unprecedented challenges – and here in the Mediterranean, these challenges are urgent and all too visible. What we do to address them in this crucial next decade will affect lives across the region and beyond for generations to come.
Given the size of the issues affecting us we need all the help we can get – and getting nature on our side has to be part of our response. In other words, it’s time to work with Nature-based Solutions (NbS) – and coastal wetlands are one of the most effective NbS we have.
First, for context, let’s run back over the facts. The Mediterranean is a climate change hotspot. Temperatures here are rising 20% faster than the global average, with an increase of 2.2°C projected by 2040. Heatwaves are increasing in frequency, intensity and duration; while catastrophic wildfires – like those that swept across Greece, Turkey and Italy in 2021 – are becoming ever more common. The heating climate is changing ecosystems, displacing species, reducing harvests.
Paradoxically, along with the droughts and decreased precipitation caused by global heating we’re also seeing an increase in flooding, heavy rainfall and erosion, as weather conditions become more extreme. Flood risk across the Mediterranean will increase by 50% by 2100. Coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surges.
Against this backdrop, the demographics of the Mediterranean mean these natural risks directly impact – and are exacerbated by – the growing human population, as coastal development, urbanisation, industry and agriculture continue to deplete natural resources and disrupt natural processes. Severe water stress will affect 250 million people by 2040; while 15 coastal cities of more than 1 million inhabitants are at risk of flooding. Regional food security is being undermined, biodiversity is in retreat and nature-dependent livelihoods are being lost across the basin.
Continuing with ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option – so how do we fix things? Well, that’s where the ‘Nature-based Solutions’ come in.
 All figures quoted taken from Risks associated to climate and environmental changes in the Mediterranean region, MedECC, 2019
Working with nature
NbS are defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 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’. In other words, by using NbS we can work with nature to fix the planet and help people at the same time.
You’re going to hear a lot more about NbS in the coming years. In global terms, experts say that NbS could provide about 30% of the emissions reductions needed to keep us within the 1.5°C Paris Agreement target. Here in the Mediterranean, our coastal wetlands are vital carbon sinks: when healthy, they sequester carbon at a rate 10-20 times greater than forests, then keep it stored out of the atmosphere. By contrast, when the wetlands are damaged – through development, pollution and the like – they lose this ability, and can release stored carbon into the atmosphere instead. There’s still a very long way to go before we reach our Paris Agreement targets – restoring and conserving our coastal wetlands is one of the best ways we have of getting there. From Posidonia seagrass beds to natural saltmarsh systems, the more healthy wetland areas we have, the more carbon we can sequester.
But healthy coastal wetlands do more than mitigate the effects of global heating. They can also play a vital role in helping Mediterranean societies to adapt to the changing realities of the world we’re now living in.
As extreme weather events become ever more acute across the region, coastal wetlands provide natural defences against floods and droughts alike: they absorb and store excess water from flooding, preventing soil erosion and damage to property, while conversely they help maintain water supplies in times of drought.
They protect us from the sea, too. They buffer the land from waves and winds, and they’re the first line of defence against rising salt waters – these would otherwise threaten settlements, farmland, drinking water supplies and freshwater ecosystems. Healthy dune systems and saltmarshes last longer and are more cost-effective shields for our coastline than any form of artificial ‘grey’ infrastructure.
Water stress impacts water quality as well as water quantity, and coastal wetland ecosystems also act as ‘nature’s kidneys’. They naturally store and purify drinking water for many millions of people in coastal communities, directly supplying settlements and recharging ground aquifers. We’ll need to make the most of the natural assistance healthy wetlands have to offer us to keep our growing population supplied with clean water in the years to come.
Coastal wetlands of Oristano, Sardinia (Italy). © MedWet/C.Amico
These reasons build a compelling case for why restoring and conserving coastal wetlands as NbS should be a priority across the Mediterranean, but there’s one more very important reason too. Healthy wetlands – whether we depend on them for our drinking water, flood defences, or as our best natural weapon against the climate crisis – are also a haven for biodiversity.
Sometimes described as ‘biological supermarkets’, wetlands are among the most productive habitats in the world – and when biodiversity thrives, society thrives too. Small-scale fishers depend on healthy coastal wetlands; many thousands of people support themselves by harvesting wetland-dependent plants or feed themselves by hunting wetland animals; while farmers depend on them for grazing livestock. In broader ecosystem terms they’re particularly important for birdlife, with manmade saltpans playing a notably important role in nesting, feeding, overwintering and migrations for hundreds of species. Wetland ecotourism is a growing economic sector (and functioning saltpans provide jobs for local communities, too).
All of these factors drive the Wetland Based Solutions project. Instead of degrading and destroying more of these vital ecosystems, we must recognise them as the miraculous Nature-based Solutions they really are, and conserve and restore them to their full potential once more.
A fisherman in the Ghar el Melh lagoon (Tunisia). © MedWet/C.Amico