Loss of habitats and the modification of ecosystems, due primarily to the pressures of land-based and marine human activities, are the main environmental challenges. The pressures include urbanization and industrialization resulting in pollution and eutrophication, damming and irrigation leading to saline intrusion and coastal erosion, and the overexploitation of marine fisheries (Figure 2). There is concern over the potential impacts of climate change and associated, anticipated sea-level rise, particularly coastal erosion and the inundation of coastal lowlands.


The bordering seas – the Atlantic Ocean and the almost landlocked Mediterranean and Red seas connected by the Straits of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal – are endowed with biodiverse coastal and marine ecosystems, including wetlands on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, coral reefs and mangroves around the Red Sea, and a wide variety of fisheries (Figure 1). The coastal climate is mostly semi-arid to arid and the few significant rivers, notably the Nile, are now dammed so that there is little freshwater and sediment discharge to the sea. Substantial oil and gas resources occur offshore, mainly in the Mediterranean and Red seas. The coasts have a wealth of cultural heritage sites.

The Mediterranean shores are mainly sandy and host a variety of turtles, as well as cetaceans and the monk seal. Their many protected areas include marine and coastal wetland national parks such as Kouf and Karabolli in Libya, and Ichkeul, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Tunisia, of importance for migratory birds. Another key ornithological site (with Ramsar status) is the intertidal wetland of Moulay Bousselham on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. The biodiversity of the Red Sea coasts of Egypt and Sudan is globally significant. Corals occur extensively, primarily on mainland-fringing and barrier reefs, around islands and, in Sudan, on an atoll. Mangroves occur in sheltered mainland inlets. Besides hosting several varieties of sea-grass, these coasts are home to three turtle species, inshore cetaceans and dugongs. Reef health in the late 1990s was considered generally good, and the coral diversity and reef-associated fauna amongst the highest in the Indian Ocean region (PERSGA/GEF 2003). Protected areas in the Red Sea include the marine national parks of Ras Mohammed on the Egyptian Sinai peninsula and the Sanganeb Atoll off the Sudan shore (Abdellatif 1993), where 124 coral species are recorded.

Morocco has a productive, nutrient-rich upwelling area off its Atlantic coast – part of the Canary Current LME. The Mediterranean Sea is considered to be a low productivity ecosystem with intensive fishing its primary driving force (NOAA 2003b). It is relatively poor in marine resources except around the Nile delta, where high nutrient outflows increase productivity (FAO 2003b). The reefs of the Red Sea provide some of the most productive coastal fisheries.

Offshore hydrocarbon resources are especially important (EIA 2005). Huge offshore gas reserves have been discovered in the Gulf of Gabès, where a transboundary field is being developed jointly by Tunisia and Libya. The majority of Egypt’s oil reserves are also situated offshore, with the main production in the Gulf of Suez, while some of its largest gas resources have recently been proved off the Nile delta. Morocco has limited resources of natural gas and oil in its coastal Essaouira basin.

The coastal zone has a rich archaeological and cultural heritage, including UNESCO World Heritage sites in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya (UNESCO 2005) and the now submerged archaeological heritage of the city of Alexandria in Egypt.


The development of oil and natural gas resources underpins most national economies, with considerable local employment opportunities, though mostly for men. During the last decade or so, much of the development has focused on offshore acreage (EIA 2005) and this is likely to continue. Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are all set to substantially increase gas production, feeding growing demand mostly from Europe, as well as satisfying the national and transnational needs of the electricity sector, along with industry and domestic consumers. Natural gas, largely from off the Nile delta, is likely to drive Egypt’s energy sector for the foreseeable future.

Figure 8: Reported marine fish catches in Northern African countries since 1980 Reported marine fish production has increased overall during the period 1980-2003, totalling about 1.4 million t in 2001 (Figure 11, FAO 2005). Morocco (Atlantic and Mediterranean) is by far the largest producer. In 2001, its total marine fish production was 933 197 t – a six-fold increase since 1961. Egypt (Mediterranean and Red Sea) is the second largest producer (FAO 2005). Generally in the Mediterranean, total fish landings have increased steadily, not only due to greater fishing pressure, but also to higher nutrient input into a formerly low-nutrient sea (Alm 2002). In the Red Sea, where the total fish landings amount to about 22 800 t per year, 44 per cent of the landings are coral reef-based (PERSGA/GEF 2003). Artisanal fisheries are still important in the Mediterranean and Red seas, but industrial fishing including foreign fleets is becoming prevalent.

Further development of marine fisheries will depend on the success of regulation at national and international levels. The principal fishing grounds on the continental shelf off the Nile delta are fairly heavily exploited (FAO 2003b), but elsewhere there is potential for increased catches. Algeria’s five-year fisheries plan aims to increase production to 230 000 t per year, with the creation of 100 000 new jobs (FAO 2003a). Egypt aims to increase Red Sea catches to 70 000 t per year (PERSGA/GEF 2003). Sudan also has potential for increased production, notably of finfish, doubling its present yield of 5 000 t per year (FAO 2002b). Aquaculture in coastal wetlands makes a significant contribution to total fish production, particularly in Egypt, by far the largest producer of farmed fish, with rapid development mostly in semi-intensive, brackish water farms (El Gamal 2001, FAO 2003b). According to Egypt’s General Authority of Fish Resources Development (GAFRD), the total production from fish farms in 2003 was 445 200 t (GAFRD 2003).

Tourism is a major foreign exchange earner, much of it generated in coastal areas (Figure 3). The cultural heritage sites are major assets with significant development potential over the long term. Statistics and forecasts indicate steady growth in this sector (WTTC 2005). Demand overall in Northern African countries, excluding Sudan, is expected to grow by 9 per cent in 2005 and by 5.5 per cent per year, in real terms, between 2006 and 2015. It is Egypt’s most dynamic industry and the largest earner of foreign exchange. Its annual increase of tourist inflows from 1982 to 1999 averaged 9.7 per cent and is expected to account for 15.4 per cent of GDP in 2005. Much of its tourism economy is sustained by its Red Sea coral reef coasts, where activity is locally intense.


The environmental issues and threats relating to the realization of development opportunities are being addressed locally to globally, within the framework of integrated management of coastal resources. All countries are party to either the Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea against Pollution (the Barcelona Convention) or the Jeddah Convention (Red Sea and Gulf of Aden) – in Egypt’s case, both. These MEAs focus on cooperation for a coordinated approach to protection and enhancement of the marine environment and coastal zones. Tunisia has passed specific coastal zone legislation and has established the Tunisian Agency of Coastal Protection and Management (UNEP/MAP/PAP 2001). Algeria is drafting such legislation and creating an agency. Support for capacity-building for the sustainable management of coastal and marine resources is offered by the World Bank’s Mediterranean Environmental Technical Assistance Programme, focused on water quality, municipal and hazardous waste, and policy and legislation tools (METAP 2004). A Strategic Action Programme for land-based sources of marine pollution has been adopted by all 20 Mediterranean countries under the Barcelona Convention. Initiatives exist for strengthening the management of Mediterranean coastal wetlands through MedWet and its programmes such as MedWetCoast and the North African Wetland Network (Box 3).

Box 3: Environmental degradation of Lake Maryout, Egypt

Lake Maryout covers 60 km², the remains of a once much more extensive coastal lake separating Alexandria’s Mediterranean shoreline from the Egyptian hinterland. It has high salinity and is fed by agricultural drainage waters (though formerly by a branch of the River Nile). Historically it has provided a rich fisheries resource, but is now identified by Egypt’s National Environmental Action Plan as the country’s most polluted lake. In the decade 1980-1990, annual fish production there fell from more than 10 000 t to less than 2 000 t.

The current phase of the lake’s decline stemmed from the 1950s, when its southern parts were reclaimed for agriculture. In 1986, the lake became the receptacle for Alexandria’s sewage, which had earlier been discharged untreated to the sea. Additional contemporary pressures come from urban expansion and industrial development, the discharge of industrial liquid and solid waste, and agricultural effluent, which is heavily polluted with pesticides. In 1994, sewage and industrial waste became subject to treatment, and some of the drainage canals that used to flood the lake with industrial waste were closed.

While some of the environmentally damaging activities have now been curtailed, land reclamation for urban project development continues to threaten the capacity of the lake to function as a fishery. The multiplicity of government bodies controlling the lake is the source of most of the environmental problems. Major factors which have led to the current deterioration in the state of the lake are the conflicts between different stakeholders (urban developers, fishermen and farmers) and the lack of an integrated policy between the many institutional bodies at the national and local scale, who have responsibilities in managing the lake resource. Environmental sustainability of the lake resource is a choice, but it requires a collective understanding to see beyond destructive environmental conflict which is leading to its deterioration.

Source: UN 2005

Population growth in the southern Mediterranean countries will present major challenges in physical planning and policy formation to protect coastal areas (Alm 2002). Urban sprawl is a priority issue. In Algeria, coastal cities have more than tripled their surface area in 30 years. Much prime agricultural land is being lost to urban expansion and coastal wetland lost to both peri-urban landfill and agricultural reclamation. In this competition for space, semi- intensive brackish water fish farms are increasingly vulnerable (El Gamal 2001). As well as suffering population pressures, parts of coastal Morocco and Algeria are prone to damaging earthquakes.

Box 4: Tourism and water resources in Tunisia

Tunisia is a relatively water-scarce country, especially in the tourism zones along the eastern seaboard and the offshore islands. Water must be transferred to some of the best known tourist resort areas such as Sfax and the island of Kerkenna. Within perhaps ten years, it may also be necessary to do so to Djerba. While in absolute terms tourists in Tunisia consume only 1 per cent of national water resources, per head they consume nine times as much as nationals, partly because the use of water by tourists in hotels and resorts is typically very wasteful. Extensive treatment of this water is required before it can be re-used. In Tunisia, it is predicted that, even without the effects of climate change, water rationing may ultimately be required because of the regional water demand conflicts to which tourism contributes.

Source: WTO 2003

Coastal pollution is a serious concern. In Egypt, the discharge of untreated municipal waste and industrial and agricultural pollutants has been commonplace, leading to eutrophication and related public health risks (UNEP/MAP 1999, EEAA 2002, Crossland and others 2005) (Box 3), though the situation is improving with many of the polluting sources now stopped. For example, in Tunisia, 65 per cent of wastewater is now treated (METAP 2004).

Overexploitation of fisheries is another key factor determining the health of the marine ecosystem. Foreign fleets and new technology are contributing to the problem, reflected in a decrease in the mean size of fish caught (Alm 2002). The issues of by-catch and discards, as well as the damage to seabed habitats from trawling, are problems for biodiversity. Another factor affecting biodiversity is the introduction of invasive species, especially from ships’ ballast water discharge. In the Mediterranean, more than 240 non-indigenous species have been identified, much of the introduction attributed to migration and transport by shipping through the Suez Canal (Lindeboom 2002).

Oil and gas development is another contributor to habitat disturbance and loss, notably seabed disturbance around platforms and submarine pipelines, and pollution from drilling compounds. Accidental pollution from oil wells and oil transportation remains a risk.

Much of the development of tourism on Egypt’s Red Sea coast is poorly controlled, leading to an overall decline in coral cover and the loss of the natural tourism attraction (PERSGA 2005). The construction of hotels and transport infrastructure inevitably involves habitat loss, while the pressures of tourist numbers – physical disturbance, high demand for freshwater, pollution and eutrophication – impact adversely on the living resources, especially those of coral reef ecosystems. The reefs also suffer from destructive fishing methods, including the use of explosives. Considering the importance of coral reefs in the development of tourism on the Red Sea coasts, there is a worrying lack of public and government awareness, as well as poor enforcement of the legal framework relating to reef conservation (Kotb and others 2004). Human-induced global warming is likely to be responsible for the coral bleaching in 1998 which caused the extensive coral mortality in the northern-central Red Sea (Kotb and others 2004).

The discharge of freshwater and sediment from rivers into the Mediterranean has been drastically reduced over the last few decades as a result of damming and agricultural irrigation (UNEP/MAP/PAP 2001), leading to coastal erosion and to the saline intrusion of deltaic wetlands. Freshwater discharge from the River Nile became insignificant with the commissioning in 1968 of the Aswan High Dam. The reductions in sediment discharge, as a consequence of damming, have caused a major retreat of the (formerly prograding) distributary mouths at Damietta and Rosetta (Milliman 1997, NEAP 2002, Crossland and others 2005), where coastal defences have been installed in an attempt to arrest the retreat. Similar impacts of damming have been reported from the delta of the Moulouya River in Morocco (Snoussi and others 2002), as shown in Box 5. Coastal erosion and saline intrusion are some of the expected impacts of climate change and its anticipated, associated sea-level rise (IPCC 2001). Coastal erosion is already widely reported, with major beach loss in Algeria and Tunisia necessitating costly renourishment (Alm 2002). Sea-level rise poses particular problems for the Nile delta and the city of Alexandria, much of which would be inundated by a rise in sea level of only a metre or so (El Raey and others 1999).

Box 5: Multiple uses and conflicts on the Moulouya coastal wetland, Morocco

The Moulouya deltaic zone, with its complex marshes, is a 3 000 ha Moroccan Site of Biological and Ecological Interest. It is a refuge for many birds of worldwide or national interest.

The main human activities in the area are agriculture and grazing. National tourism at the adjoining Saïdia beach provides an important summer income for the local population. In 1992, a 230-ha aquaculture farm was established close to the estuary, but closed in 1996 because it caused accelerated salinization of the aquifer. This had a negative impact on the vegetation and generated conflicts between agriculture, aquaculture and wetland conservation. A multidisciplinary analysis of the state of the Moulouya coastal wetland has been carried out as part of the MedWetCoast Project. This has shown that, in terms of biodiversity, among the 67 globally threatened taxa present on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, 13 are present on the delta site. This and previous studies have revealed impacts including: erosion of the delta coastline related mainly to water and sediment abstraction by damming (Snoussi, Haida and Imassi 2002, Imassi and Snoussi 2003); water pollution and salinization related to agricultural practices (Benkaddour 1997); wetland reclamation and gradual encroachment of agriculture on wetlands; saltwater intrusion in connection with overpumping of freshwater and aquaculture activities (Sadki 1996); losses of the ecological and economic values of the wetlands (Khattabi 2002); and problems of water management between the different users and wetland conservation (Snoussi, 2004).

The overall initiative of MedWetCoast aims at ensuring the sustainable management of the biological diversity of the coastal areas and wetlands in six Mediterranean countries, through the development of adequate legal and regulatory frameworks, the creation of institutional organizations adapted to the complexity of the issues at stake, capacitybuilding and the development of an exchange network at the regional level.

Sources: Benkaddour 1997, Khattabi 2002, Sadki 1996, Snoussi, Haida and Imassi 2002, Imassi and Snoussi 2003, Snoussi 2004