Farming sucking Med dry

Thirsty cash crops are replacing traditional agriculture in the Mediterranean, meaning the region must brace itself for harsher, and more frequent, drought.

According to conservation charity WWF a combination of climate change and excessive irrigation mean fresh water could become a scarce commodity, with communities and livelihoods set to suffer.

The NGO is calling for a major shift in European and national policies that govern the way water is used, saying the area irrigated in the region has doubled in the last 40 years and agriculture has become the biggest single consumer of water in the region.

In a new report, Drought in the Mediterranean – WWF policy proposals, the organisation argues that subsidies for water-hungry crops like maize and sugarbeet have heralded the demise of rain-reliant traditional crops such as olives and citrus fruits.

Irrigation is used to grow these crops faster and bigger, even in arid areas and at the driest times of the year. In North African and Middle Eastern countries bordering the sea this phenomenon is aggravated by inefficient irrigation methods.

Two years ago WWF released a similar report, saying tourism was at the root of the region’s water crisis (see related story) but it now says agriculture surpasses all other sectors and poses the biggest global threat to the environment.

“Governments must stop subsidising irrigation in water scarce areas now,” says Francesca Antonelli, head of the freshwater programme at WWF’s Mediterranean Programme Office.

“If water is not managed more wisely, drought will become chronic and people will suffer more as water for other basics such as drinking, hygiene and cooking will become scarce.”

European Mediterranean countries have already experienced a reduction of up to 20 per cent of rainfall while water demand has doubled in the last 50 years.

The countries experiencing the greatest growth in water demand are France, Turkey and Syria. Projections show further decreases in precipitation as well as a rise of 25% consumption by 2025 in the Eastern and Southern shore of the Mediterranean, particularly in Egypt, Turkey and Syria.

“The crisis in the Mediterranean mirrors the world water crisis,” says Jamie Pittock, director of the Global Freshwater Programme at WWF International.

“There is a limited amount of freshwater available so governments must manage demand and water consumption within sustainable limits, safeguarding nature as the source of water”.

Drought has already wrought havoc, costing about €11 billion in Europe in 2003 and claiming around 40,000 lives, half of them in Italy alone.

Last summer, Spain’s agricultural sector lost more than €2 billion as a result of drought (see related story).

Government intervention is needed to control demand for water, says the WWF, and to balance the allocation of water to all users, while also improving irrigation methods and making better choices in the location of crops.

Sam Bond

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