Human demography is very dynamic in the Mediterranean countries. Their total population grew from 285 to 460 million inhabitants between 1970 and 2008, and, with the current trend, may reach 524 million by 2025 (statistics by the Blue Plan). In addition, over 275 million tourists visit the region each year.
Both these permanent and seasonal populations require increasing resources such as food, water, space for housing, access and transport facilities, economic and social services, etc. These increased needs, and the increased economic activity that results from this booming population impact on natural ecosystems and resources including wetlands.
Demography density is a root cause of several intermediate causes and consequences that potentially impact wetlands such as change in land use, water demand for human use, intensity of visits and use of natural resources, flux of waste and sewage, fragmentation of ecosystems.
Decision-makers constantly have to arbitrate between multiple needs and demands by society. More and more, with globalization, their decisions are influenced by supra-national entities such as EU, OECD, WTO, MDGs, etc. Often, politicians prefer decisions that bring short-term benefits within the period of their electoral mandate. The environment, including wetlands, are often the “losers” in these decisions, as the benefits they provide are regarded as negligible compared to those expected when “developing” them, e.g. for housing or intensive agriculture. Even when decisions are taken in good faith, the benefit of conserving wetlands is not always obvious at first sight to the decision-maker. Often, it is only after a wetland has been destroyed, that the lack of a vital service (e.g. protection against flood, regulation of local climate, water filtering….) becomes obvious. By then, it is often too late.
In the context of the Barcelona Convention, political decisions in the context of sustainable development are also different based on the development status of each country. Developing countries focus more their priorities on economic and social construction and development while developed countries are in the situation of consolidating their socio-economic assets with more environmental measures.
Political decision is a root cause of several activities potentially impacting wetlands through development decision implemented by national and international finance and through legal and regulatory framework and control.
Currently, 90% of the total GDP generated in the Mediterranean basin is produced by just 5 northern countries. The economic model over which this wealth relies is viewed by all other countries as highly desirable, as the ideal objective to reach. Citizens from the rest of the Mediterranean therefore legitimately demand the right to own and consume as much, and of the same quality, as the North: water, food, land, industrial products, space for leisure activities… Inevitable pressures on wetlands result from this. South-north migration, either controlled or not controlled, is another option to seek access to this northern socio-economic model.
16 of the 27 Mediterranean countries already exceed, in terms of ecological footprint, the average bio-capacity of the planet, i.e. 2.1 global hectares/ person. Greece and Spain even stand at almost 3 times beyond this “balance” level. Neverteless, all the other countries tend to adopt the same development goals.
One of the by-products of this development model is the rapid growth in international exchange (transport, trade…). This in turn leads to added pressures on wetlands: introduction of species, of mosquito-borne diseases, fragmentation of habitats…
The current capitalist consumption model and trend, guided by employment, economic return and social enhancement, is a root cause of several intermediate causes and consequences that potentially impact wetlands through high infrastructure development (fragmentation, loss of wetlands), increased waste and sewage flux (pollution, water quality), industrial development (pollution, loss of wetlands), tourism (disturbance).
Wetlands have traditionally been looked upon and feared in many societies. They were considered as areas full of illnesses, mosquitoes, devils and witches. Long time ago, these beliefs and fears, transmitted through traditional healers and elders, may have participated somehow to their protection through forbidden access, seasonal restriction of use of resources, and spiritual events. Contrary to some regions of South-East Asia and Pacific, most of these traditional beliefs and wetlands related cultural values have already disappeared in the Mediterranean Basin.
Over the past 2 millennium, especially since the roman influence, the drainage of wetlands was viewed as a major undertaking for human health and livelihood. This, combined with the need to expand agriculture land, led to wide-scale drainage. The trend intensified during the last 2 centuries) with industrialization and urbanization, especially in North western part of Europe.
However, in some areas, local societies were well aware of the benefits that wetlands provided them (fish, game, reeds…). Consequently, they resisted pressures by State authorities to drain them, as e.g. around the Languedoc Lagoons in southern France.
In other cases, livelihoods and production systems were adapted to wetlands conditions. Their survival is ensured through the benefit of the management of provisioning and cultural services which was progressively adapted to the socio-economic context. This is the case of Camargue, with a livelihood pattern based on rice production and extensive cattle and horse husbandry. This cultural and development area brings several visitors attracted by the wetland and wetlands related agrarian landscape, the migratory birds, horse ridding, bull festival, etc.
Climate change is currently at work in the Mediterranean as elsewhere. It is not yet a root or primary cause of change for wetlands but may become a root cause if current changes persist. For instance, temperatures in SW Europe have risen by ca. 2°C in the XXth century, and some regions in the south have seen their rainfall decline by up to 20% (Blue Plan data). The predictions of recent models suggest that in the XXIst century, the climate may overall become hotter by 2.2°C to 5.1°C, with the increase being more marked in winter in the North, in summer in the south. The most affected region will likely be the Middle East. The number of very hot days will rise, and the n° of rainy days will likely decrease. whilst precipitations will overall become more erratic and, possibly, redistribute over the years. Overall, river-flows are likely to decrease in yearly average. However, local exceptions from the general scenario will likely occur. Also, the frequency of extreme events (severe droughts, floods, heat waves…) may increase, as can already been seen in the more frequent storm surges that affect the coastline in Mediterranean deltas and lagoons through increased erosion.
Overall, this may affect wetlands more than most (semi)natural habitats, because the water issue is so vital for them. It is predicted that many Mediterranean wetlands will run dry, or become temporary when they used to be permanent.