UPDATED February 13, 2024
Liechtenstein, Geneva and Marseille:
Boosted by human-caused climate change but also El Niño, 2023 ranks as the world’s warmest year on record according to the European Union Climate Service. El Niño is a natural event where warmer surface waters in the East Pacific Ocean release additional heat into the atmosphere aggravating warming induced by human factors such as oil consumption. Last year was about 1.48C warmer than the long-term average before humans started burning large amounts of fossil fuels, the climate service maintains.
Nevertheless, what happened during the 2022 drought already offers an indication of what the Mediterranean region can expect if this negative trend continues. Severe water shortages affected much of northern Italy’s Po River Valley causing forest fires, reduced olive production and saltwater intrusion into delta areas threatening local agriculture. Drinking water sources, too, were affected. Even with early winter snow in the Alps, latest scientific data suggests that this could all be part of a mainly climate-induced trend over the next decade.
According to an August 2023 study published by the University of Bologna in Science Advances, scientists explored trends in the Po River Valley such as rainfall, snow precipitation, evaporation and irrigation over the past 216 years. Based on their records, the 2022 drought proved to be the region’s most disastrous forcing the Italian government to declare a state of emergency in five of its northern regions irrigated by the Po.
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As Italy’s longest river, the Po crosses the whole of northern Italy with original water sources often contained by lakes and dams in the French, Italian, Swiss and Austrian Alps. Together with the Rhone and Nile, the Po constitutes one of the Mediterranean’s three largest water discharges. Incorporating cities such as Turin and Milan, the Po is critically important to Italy’s overall economy supporting over 18 million people, nearly one third of the country’s population, as well as up to 35 percent of its agriculture.
As pointed out by the University of Bologna report, the Po’s natural flow was 30 percent less than the previous worst recorded event, which might occur on average every 600 years. Such phenomena might still suggest normality except that “it is not normal that six out of 10 worst droughts since 1807 occurred after 2000,” said team leader Alberto Montanari. The scientists found the water flows to be higher in the spring than in the summer, primarily because of earlier snowmelt and reduced snowfall in the Alps, “a clear change induced by warming.”
The Po River runs nearly dry. (Photo: European Space Agency)
Given 50 percent less rainfall combined with excessively high temperatures in 2022 leading to excess water stress in many Alpine lakes and rivers, both upriver regulation and reduced flows prevented additional water releases into the Po despite pleading by the Italian government. In some parts, river levels dropped between five and 10 metres exposing old ships, trucks and even Roman artefacts, while lack of local irrigation resulted in the need to bring in outside water. Even then, the Po Valley suffered from severely reduced rice, grape, wheat, corn and tomato harvests, while power stations supplying industrial zones were forced to reduce production and even shut down.
While the Rhone River, which also originates in the Alps, did not suffer overtly from drought – water levels even increased with the spring and summer melting of the glaciers – this will not always remain the case. According to CIPRA, a Liechtenstein-based scientific research and advocacy umbrella organization to sustainably conserve the Alps, Switzerland has invested heavily in hydro-electric energy and, from the country’s point of view, needs to ensure significant water reserves to operate. Hydro-based power currently covers 60 per cent of Switzerland’s energy needs, but this is now coming under pressure by climate change.
“This means regulating water access which can cause problems for down river levels,” warned CIPRA director Kaspar Schuler. With less snowmelt, such controls can expect to increase in the years ahead severely affecting downriver water levels. CIPRA is an observer member of the 1991 Alpine Convention which represents eight Alpine countries as well as the European Union. Schuler further noted that while the Swiss placed water issues on the table in the last (9th) State of the Alps Report, they have yet to show the courage to properly address “the elephant in the room.” As both he and other experts point out, water availability not only needs to be carefully managed but shared equitably.
For international organizations such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a key partner of the Marseille-based Plan Bleu of the Barcelona Convention and the Mediterranean Action Plan, it is imperative to deal with such issues now. While Dubai’s recent COP28 has pledged a transition away from fossil fuels by 2050 coupled with an increase in pledged support for developing nations, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, UNEP’s Deputy Director, warned that the Mediterranean, like everywhere on Earth, “is facing the triple planetary crisis of biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change.” She stressed that, according to UNEP’s 2020 report on the State of the Environment and Development in the Mediterranean, unless urgent and resolute action is taken to halt current trends, “environmental degradation could have serious and lasting consequences for human health and livelihoods in the region”.
Water concerns reflect all three of these crises. As scientists and policymakers warn, water competition will play an increasingly destructive role in the future of the Mediterranean’s well-being unless properly maintained and shared in the broader public interest. It could also provoke new conflicts, whether in the form of Saudi, Jordanian or Turkish claims on Iraqi aquifers reliant on rainfall replenishment flows from their own countries, or disputes amongst farmers in the Atlas Mountains seeking access to irrigation sluices located in distant or higher ranges.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) – conflict threat or development asset? (Photo: Ethiopian Government)
Water wars threaten to become a dangerous trend. One rapidly rising dispute is the direct competition for the Nile’s water sources, which is already undermining long-term political stability and could lead to desperate struggles for survival across several nations. Construction of the 4.2-billion-dollar Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile tributary in the northern Ethiopia highlands is causing deep concern in Egypt and Sudan. As Africa’s largest hydroelectric project with a dam nearly two kilometres long and 145m high, GERD effectively controls 85 per cent of the Nile’s waters and promises to supply 60 per cent of Ethiopians with power. Once complete, it could also provide neighbouring countries such as Kenya with electricity.
Both Egypt and Sudan fear that the dam could significantly reduce the level of the Nile itself. With 107 million people, Egypt relies almost wholly on the Nile for its fresh water, while war-torn Sudan with 48 million people is also heavily reliant. A 2% reduction in water from the Nile could result in the loss of over 80,000 hectares of irrigated land. Furthermore, not unlike the Swiss with their emphasis on assuring sufficient water for their own hydroelectric dams regardless of downriver consequences, Ethiopia might seek in times of drought to keep a full reservoir as a means of guaranteeing full generating capacity rather than letting free water flows. Other Mediterranean rivers may face similar issues unless properly managed on a sustainable basis.
With imaginative and efficient water management thought to have played a key role in the development of the Mediterranean as the “cradle of civilizations”, it remains even more important now than it did then. Given that temperature rises in the Mediterranean are far higher than elsewhere in the world, possibly reaching 2.2 degrees C by 2040, scientists predict that up to 250 million people may be facing severe droughts and water poverty on a regular basis within the next two decades. This will affect key economic aspects, particularly agriculture as the largest water user, but also migration, tourism, social instability, and urban development.
As policymakers and scientists are increasingly warning, there is an urgent need not only amongst Mediterranean countries but in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and other neighbouring regions to engage in more open debate on water use, much of which is currently exploited in an unsustainable or inequitable manner with farming ranging from wheat and wine production to coastal aquaculture and fishing having the most to lose.
According to Octavi Quintana, director of PRIMA (Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area), while the Mediterranean will be “a great test bed for finding solutions” to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis in all spheres of human activity, such as energy and food production, and across all ecosystems, it is water that “must be at the centre of this debate”.
Jan Overney, epfl. “Valais is an ideal laboratory to study climate change impacts”: Exploring the climate crisis with Jérôme Chappellaz, environmental scientist and academic director of ALPOLE at EPFL. 26 January 2024. (LINK) Couldn’t we simply build more dams? “We could, but we may already have reached a limit in terms of suitable valleys. Remember: the changing climate isn’t just affecting the cryosphere; it’s also changing rainfall patterns. In western Switzerland, we’re likely to see a decrease in summer precipitation, more extreme rainfall events and longer, more intense droughts.”
Catherine Porter. New York Times. As Switzerland’s glaciers shrink, a way of life may melt away: the tradition of “summering” animals in high pastures. 21 January 2024. (LINK). The tradition of “summering” has so transformed the countryside into a patchwork of forests and pastures that maintaining its appearance was written into the Swiss Constitution as an essential role of agriculture. In December, the United Nations heritage agency UNESCO added the Swiss tradition to its exalted “intangible cultural heritage” list. But climate change threatens to scramble those traditions. Warming temperatures, glacier loss, less snow and an earlier snow melt are forcing farmers across Switzerland to adapt.
Nearly half of Switzerland’s livestock farms send their goats, sheep and cows up to summer pastures, according the last thorough study done by government scientists, in 2014. Historically, herders would take sheep across the tongue of the Oberaletsch Glacier for “summering” in Alpine pastures. But the retreat of the glacier has long made that route too unstable and dangerous.
Switzerland’s Grande Dixence Dam – Survival 200 years from now
Sarah Planchamp , EPFL architecture student on Switzerland’s Grande Dixence dam region located at the head of the Val d’Hérémence in the canton of Valais in 200 years time.
One possibility: Local residents would live underground, in homes built directly into terraces. Crops would be grown on the terraces, which would help retain water-borne sediment, thereby keeping the lakes from silting up while creating the fertile soil needed for agroforestry. Farmers would plant crops that are better able to tolerate the new climate, such as those currently grown in the Andes. As Planchamp explains, there would be a stronger sense of community than at present: “People would learn to live with the conditions imposed on them by their environment. They would look out for each other and take care of the natural world around them. It’s interesting – and reassuring – to think that low-tech options such as these could make society more resilient.” LINK, YouTube
Global Insights editor Edward Girardet is a journalist and author focusing on conflict, humanitarian crises, environment and development worldwide. He is currently working with filmmaker Tom Woods on developing a three-year multi-media project on the Mediterranean.
Girardet is well-known for his dedicated coverage of Afghanistan since just prior to the Soviet war in 1979. His 2011 book “Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan” is considered a ‘classic’ (New York Review of Books) and one of the most informed on this country’s apparently never-ending humanitarian and economic turmoil since civil war first broke out in the summer of 1978. Other books include: “Afghanistan: The Soviet War”; “The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan”. (4 fully-revised editions) and “Somalia, Rwanda and Beyond.” Girardet is finalising a new book, The American Club, about Peshawar as the Casablanca of the 1980s.