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Agriculture draining Mediterranean water


13 Jul 2006
Gland, Switzerland – More frequent and damaging droughts are expected to plague the Mediterranean region, warns a new WWF report. These droughts are worsened by irrigated agriculture, the most important water user in the Mediterranean.

The global conservation organization wants a major shift in European and national policies that govern the way water is used, saying that without these, communities and livelihoods will suffer more than before.

The WWF report, Drought in the Mediterranean, shows that the irrigated area in the region has doubled since the 1960s. Using 65 per cent of total water consumption, irrigated agriculture now constitutes the biggest water consumer in the Mediterranean.

Subsidies from the EU and national governments have encouraged the demise of traditional rain-fed crops such as olives and citrus, favouring the irrigated cultivation of maize and sugarbeet. Irrigation is used to grow these crops faster and bigger, even in arid areas and at the driest times of the year. In non-EU countries this phenomenon is aggravated by inefficient irrigation methods.

“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.”

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 per cent 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 WWF’s Global Freshwater Programme. “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. Last summer, Spain’s agricultural sector lost more than €2 billion as a result of drought.

WWF calls on governments to address the drought crisis in its entirety to preserve freshwater ecosystems. They must control demand for water, balance the allocation of water to all users, while also improving irrigation methods and making better choices in the location of crops.


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