Land degradation has always occurred around the Mediterranean Sea. However in recent decades, the rate of land degradation has been increasing. About 300,000 km2 of land in the European coastal zone of the Mediterranean is undergoing desertification, affecting the livelihoods of 16.5 million people. 

The Mediterranean region is characterised by semi-arid climatic conditions with seasonal droughts, a very high variability of rainfall, and sudden, high intensity rainfall events. Soils are often poor and highly erodible, and water resources are frequently exploited. Forest cover has decreased, firstly due to non-sustainable exploitation, and more recently because of frequent wildfire. Agricultural areas are often subject to land abandonment and do not revert back to forests, but to highly flammable shrubland.

Agricultural intensification, fires, over-grazing, and climate change are some of the major threats that have contributed to degradation over the past several decades. Action is needed to sustainably manage resources in order to protect against desertification, erosion and flood damage.

In addition to agricultural productivity losses and increasing poverty, desertification results in significant reductions of carbon storage in soils, contributing to global warming and the loss of biodiversity. It also triggers soil erosion given the loss of vegetative ground cover, exacerbating water erosion and flash floods. These accelerate siltation in rivers and lakes and pollute water reserves.

The countries on the north shore of the Mediterranean, from Spain to Greece, will have one-third of the total population – compared with one-half at present – while the southern countries, from Morocco to Turkey, will have two-thirds of the total, i.e. double the current number. In the absence of policies promoting environmental and regional balance, these populations will abandon their land and move inexorably towards the urban centres along the coasts, contributing to further urbanization.

Traditional land tenure systems in the Mediterranean region have proven to be an obstacle to efforts for promoting efficient resource management and combating desertification.

Many environmental problems, and in particular, land degradation, forest depletion and soil erosion, can be generated as a result of incomplete or inconsistent property rights, which makes natural resources more prone to overexploitation. In this respect, it is important to consider land tenure reform (or land resource reform) not only as a means of distributing land, but as an integral process for providing access, tenurial rights and the sustainable use of natural resources such as forests, water, seed, genetic resources and biodiversity.

For that, IUCN recognizes that there is a need to:

  1. Recognize the significant contributions of drylands to national economies and local livelihoods, moving away from the negative notion of drylands as wastelands.
  2. Support improved drylands governance. The current governance situation in many drylands can exacerbate both ecosystem degradation and the insecurity of livelihoods. There is an urgent need to solve inequitable tenure and rights regimes, strengthen democratic decision-making, promote peace, and help resolve natural resource-based conflicts.
  3. Apply the lessons from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment to climate change adaptation and mitigation in drylands. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment demonstrates the importance of ecosystem services in achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals, including halving extreme poverty by 2015. This framework also helps move beyond assessments to providing a rationale for sustainable investments in drylands. IUCN believes that this can also help promote enhanced synergies between the UNCCD and other Rio Conventions, as well as the Commission on Sustainable Development.