As an environmental specialist, I have been lucky enough to travel along much of North Africa’s coast. From the outside, natural resources, marine life, and biodiversity, as well as the epic beauty of ancient cultural sites, appear to be surviving. But everything that exists on or near the coast is in deep peril.
In some areas of Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, coastal homes and community life are being washed away by worsening coastal erosion, increased flooding, and a fast-growing population. Coastal cities are expanding, even as they sink below sea level. The Mediterranean Sea has reached a tipping point from overfishing, marine pollution, rising sea levels and warming waters.
There is an urgent need for a new approach to economic activity on the Mediterranean Sea, which is warming at two to three times the rate of the global ocean. Countries are partnering with the World Bank Group, which has established a new program in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region called "MENA Blue." This program is designed to help countries build their coastal resilience and adaptation through the Blue Economy framework, which supports sustainable economic growth while preserving the marine and coastal ecosystems people depend on.
The program builds on existing engagements and regional partnerships, such as the WestMed Blue Economy Initiative, the Union for the Mediterranean, and the Union du Maghreb Arabe, among others, says Ayat Soliman, the World Bank’s Sustainable Development Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): "If we work in concert to find adaptation solutions to climate change, we will help protect communities from extreme poverty."
First — Framing the Coastal Challenges
I cannot help but see, with growing alarm, the danger of the perfect storm caused by critical coastal pressure alongside the impact of climate change.
When I speak to coastal residents and representatives of coastal communities, I hear the call loud and clear. Fisherman Abdelkhalek Essid says his region on the Tunisia coast "is exhausted" due to severe marine pollution and overfishing. Hotel owner Narjess Nouasker told us, “we are a victim of our own success,” as urban sprawl compounds the challenges of erosion and degradation. Scientists studying Moroccan climate hotspots measure the disappearance of their coastline and the increase in aggravated coastal erosion, in meters.
The tourism and fisheries industries, both critical to the region’s economy, will be more adversely affected by worsening marine pollution, sea warming, illegal sand mining, and unchecked coastal urban sprawl if the degradation is not turned around. The Mediterranean Sea is today the world’s fourth largest plastic producer. Tourism officials and hotel owners complain of disappearing beaches — another challenge plaguing the entire North African coast.
Framing the Solutions
MENA Blue supports countries as they identify their high priority, climate hotspots — the ones that need urgent solutions to adapt — but also develop sustainable Blue Economy strategies that will help them effectively plan and build the resilience of coastal communities and areas in the long-term. Program activities aim to strengthen the physical, social, and economic resilience through strategic advice, convening power, and the mobilization of climate finance to this most vulnerable region.
Through technical assistance, MENA Blue will help countries either improve on existing decision-making tools or develop new decision-making tools related to Geographic Information Systems, Early Warning Systems, Multi-Hazard risk modelling, and Marine Spatial Planning, so governments can identify priority areas for targeted intervention and long-term planning.
To address the mounting challenges of marine litter and plastic pollution, MENA Blue will support strategies and investments in favor of the circular economy for cleaner, plastic-free, coastal and marine ecosystems in the region.
The program will also work with the governments to develop Natural Capital Accounting (NCA). The countries have expressed concern about precious biodiversity and ecosystems at risk, and they have asked for help in evaluating the wealth of their coastal and marine natural resources, and how to better protect them. With the support of the WAVES partnership — now part of the broader World Bank umbrella initiative, the Global Program for Sustainability — the program’s work will assist decision-makers as they develop future coastal development plans and help government officials better understand the wealth of biodiversity and the tradeoffs caused by investments.
Countries are also requesting training and capacity building in satellite-based technologies in coordination with the European Space Agency. Improved monitoring and disaster risk management can better protect communities from more storm surges and the more frequent extreme weather events associated with climate change.
Evidence-based action can transform the coasts we love while supporting more sustainable and inclusive economic growth. I would like to quote Narjess Bouasker from a new video produced by MENA Blue. A hotel manager and environmental activist, she is deeply concerned about coastal erosion and degradation in her hometown of Hammamet, Tunisia. Still, she envisages a brighter future: “We are of course hopeful that we can bring our coast back, for all of us.”