Drought emergency underlines need for coordinated action across the Mediterranean

Drought emergency on both rims of the Mediterranean has led to water use limitations, jeopardizing the region’s unique ecosystems and underlining the need for urgent and coordinated action.

Photo: EU, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery

The Mediterranean Basin, the second largest biodiversity hotspot of the world, is under severe threats due to climate change. Water scarcity, a long-known and widespread challenge in many Mediterranean countries, is increasing as a consequence of rising temperatures and reduced rainfall. Despite greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by countries in the region lying at relatively low levels, the climate change experienced in the Mediterranean is exceeding reported global means.

The latest report Drought in the Mediterranean – January 2024  released by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) highlights the alarming situation of persisting droughts and their impact across the region. The report indicates that, during 2023, most of the Mediterranean region experienced above-average temperatures, with a sequence of unseasonal warm spells affecting the region between September and December, making it the hottest year on record according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service. Moreover, between January 1st and January 20th 2024, the Mediterranean underwent severe drought conditions, particularly in southern Italy, southern Spain, and Malta, that worsened the already alarming situation persisting in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

The drought affected the availability of water resources, and water-use restrictions have been announced or implemented in Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. In Morocco, after six consecutive years of drought, water reservoirs are critically low with an average dam-filling of about 23% and irrigation capacity critically reduced. Similarly, in Catalonia (Spain), drought emergency was declared on 1st February 2024 with strict water-use restrictions as the water reserves of the region are below 16%.

According to the report, the ongoing drought combined with long-lasting, above-average temperatures and the warm spells, has led to severe impacts on soil moisture and vegetation growth, especially visible in northern Africa, coastal regions of Spain, and most of the Mediterranean islands. Satellite observations show vegetation stress over the southern and eastern coasts of the Iberian Peninsula, southern Italy and northern Africa. Moreover, fire danger, a direct result of elevated temperature, generalized dryness and fuel availability (dry litter and wood) has led to high fire risk during January 2024 in most of northern Africa and in south-eastern Spain according to the CEMS European Forest Fire Information System – EFFIS, jeopardizing precious Mediterranean ecosystems.

Source: Toreti, A., Bavera, D., Acosta Navarro, J., Acquafresca, L., Arias-Muñoz, C., Avanzi, F., Barbosa, P., Cremonese, E., De Jager, A., Ferraris, L., Fioravanti, G., Gabellani, S., Grimaldi, S., Hrast Essenfelder, A., Isabellon, M., Maetens, W., Magni, D., Masante, D., Mazzeschi, M., Mccormick, N., Rossi, L. and Salamon, P., Drought in the Mediterranean Region – January 2024, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2024, doi:10.2760/384093, JRC137036.

In this context, collaboration on forest conservation and adaptive management practices is urgently needed. It is vital that we adopt and promote practices that contribute to increased resilience, safeguard biodiversity, and favour the adaptation capacity of our forests and their ecosystems, in turn securing provision of essential ecosystem services, including climate change mitigation. The development of conservation and adaptive forest management plans and policies that prioritize ecosystem resilience and climate adaptation should consider the global nature of the problem and the regional scale of its impacts, fostering collaboration among countries to address shared challenges and exchange best practices. The Mediterranean Forest Research Agenda 2030 (MFRA) developed by European Forest Institute’s Mediterranean Facility (EFIMED) in collaboration with the Mediterranean forestry community including academia, industry, governmental and non-governmental organizations, point out research needs and highlights opportunities to face the shared threats of the region.

The MFRA 2030, states the challenges imposed by climate change and their harmful effects can be minimized more quickly and efficiently if all relevant stakeholders, from government, industry, academia, and civil society work together. Additionally, it indicates that complex problems spanning borders and affecting large areas, such as climate change, can only be solved through transnational systems-based, holistic, and collaborative approaches. The dominant differences in environmental conditions, politics, economy, and society present in the Mediterranean region might, however, represent unique opportunities, as was proven in the environmental sector, by the successful implementation of large-scale trans-border projects. This high regional diversity might be the key to develop unique synergies, fostering cooperation, growth, and development, and might stand as the cornerstone for safeguarding Mediterranean forests.  So, let us harness the diversity of the region to unlock its full potential to face climate change and work together to secure a sustainable future for Mediterranean forests.

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Mercedes Caron
Mercedes Caron is a Researcher at the European Forest Institute's Mediterranean Facility (EFIMED). Mercedes holds a PhD degree Forest and Nature Management. She is passionate about the study of nature especially interested in vegetation ecology in the face of global change.