Alessio Satta is the coordinator of MedWet, the Mediterranean Wetlands Initiative.
Today, the Mediterranean Basin is a climate change hotspot.
The region is warming 20 percent faster than the rest of the world, and 250 million of its people will be living under severe water stress by 2040. Meanwhile, the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events continue to increase, and a third of the region’s coastal population will be affected by rising sea levels in the decades to come.
Faced with an intensifying triple crisis over climate, biodiversity and water, it’s clear that bold action is needed to counter the impacts already hitting the region and its inhabitants, including the loss of ecosystem services and land, crop failure, water pollution and heat mortality — all of which will increasingly jeopardize social, economic and political stability as they worsen.
Against this backdrop, the European Union Green Deal agenda’s new nature restoration law offers the perfect opportunity to galvanize regional action. However, in its current form, released by released by the European Commission just last week, it simply doesn’t go far enough in reflecting the urgency of the challenges threatening the Mediterranean — specifically, when it comes to prioritizing our wetlands, which can offer unique solutions to all three crises.
Healthy wetlands host rich biodiversity and provide multiple benefits to humanity. They ensure water and food security by purifying water from pollutants, providing drinking water for humans and livestock, supplying water for crops, industry and energy production, and supporting the livelihood of local communities. As vital carbon sinks that keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, they store excess water during floods and release it during droughts, while protecting the coastline from erosion and storm surges. They also provide habitats for hundreds of species and benefit millions of people.
However, due to development, agricultural abstraction and pollution, wetland degradation is now widespread across the Mediterranean: Two-thirds of the region’s wetland areas have been drained over the last century, and today, 36 percent of wetland-dependent species are threatened with extinction.
In fact, despite the vital goods and services they could provide, Mediterranean wetland ecosystems are among the most vulnerable in the world.
But as vulnerable as these wetlands are today, they’re also a key part of the solution — and the upcoming nature restoration law must set clear objectives for their restoration.
This should start with improving wetland connectivity by promoting EU instruments, such as the Natura 2000 coordinated network of protected areas, and existing legislation like the Water Framework, Marine Strategy Framework and the Habitat directives. The law particularly needs to encourage holistic solutions for climate change adaptation and mitigation, as restored wetlands can play a key role in defending against floods, droughts and sea-level rise as well.
Improving the condition of wetland areas is also essential since their wider utility depends on the health of their ecosystems. So, as well as connecting habitats, the law must promote the restoration of natural ecological functions and dynamics, focusing on ecosystem services related to climate adaptation, water regulation and fish stock maintenance. And none of these issues can be addressed without large-scale nature-based interventions in many of our wetland areas.
It’s important that the management plans developed under the new law are people-centric too and integrate financial incentives, including tax cuts, to support the efforts of stakeholders — whether that be local authorities, civil society or the private sector. Voluntary “wetland contracts” — already successfully developed in some countries through the use of a place-based approach to creating inclusive and participatory action plans — would be a good instrument for securing the long-term sustainability of restoration projects.
Finally, the restoration law must also create the financial support urgently needed for Mediterranean wetlands. However, for the time being, there are no specific financial instruments at the EU level to support such plans — and this must change.
The timing of this new law is particularly opportune, following last month’s 59th meeting of the Standing Committee of the Ramsar Convention. During the event, Spain led European countries in submitting a draft resolution on the protection, management and restoration of wetlands, focusing on the role of those in the Mediterranean as a model for nature-based solutions that can be replicated around the world. The resolution is now likely to be approved at the Ramsar COP15 to be held in Montreal in November.
Restoring the Mediterranean’s wetlands for the sake of its people is a crucial objective that needs to be supported by multilateral, bilateral, national, regional and local action and funding. And the new law should strive to do more, optimizing the use of existing EU funds while also – crucially – creating a dedicated restoration fund for our region’s wetlands.
We simply can’t afford not to.