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Desertification Indicator System for Mediterranean Europe


The main issues associated with Mediterranean desertification

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Lead authors: Claudio Zucca and Veronica Colombo <nrd@uniss.it>
With contributions from
Jorge García Gómez <jorgegg@um.es>, Francisco López Bermúdez <lopber@um.es>, Giovanni Quaranta, Rosanna Salvia <quaranta@unibas.it>

g Description of reasons leading to littoralisation and why it is an issue in the context of desertification
g Examples of littoralisation in Mediterranean areas
g Spain
g Italy
g Overview of how the indicators inter-relate
g Link to table of indicators specifically relating to this issue

g Description of reasons leading to littoralisation and why it is an issue in the context of desertification
Author: Claudio Zucca and Veronica Colombo <nrd@uniss.it>

Definition. Littoralisation, defined as "concentration of economic activity in coastal areas as a result of urban growth, industrial activities, tourism and irrigation", constitutes one of the elements of specific vulnerability described in the CCD Annex IV for the Northern Mediterranean. More generally, littoralisation can be defined as the process of concentration of economic activities, population and settlements in coastal areas. The process can be associated with the abandonment of the hinterland settlements and therefore with a flow of population and resources from the inland towards the coast. In other cases it can be due to differential or preferential development. In the first case, littoralisation and land abandonment are two aspects of the same problem, typical of wide areas of the Northern Mediterranean, particularly of the Iberian peninsula. This problem is causing big social unbalances and increasing pressure on the natural resources both in the hinterland (see land abandonment) and on the coast. The process can also be characterised by the "tourism" component and by the development of this activity, sometimes in competition with the others, sometimes in parallel with them. The common and more remarkable consequence of the phenomenon is coastal urbanisation. In some cases a concentration of intensive agricultural activity is also observed, as in the south east of Spain and in several regions of the southern Italy and Greece.

Issue relevance (consequences). Coastal urbanisation is a particularly risky type of urbanisation because the coastal context introduces elements of high environmental vulnerability. These consist of:

  • scarcity and vulnerability of groundwater and surface water resources;
  • consumption of high quality soil is particularly intense because of the well known restricted occurrence of flat areas along the Mediterranean coasts, with competition particularly accentuated with agricultural activities as well as threat to the traditional uses;
  • increasing occupation of the valleys mouths and the beds of the ephemeral rivers by settlements;
  • increasing threat to the coastal fragile ecosystems, for instance wet areas and dune systems and areas of rest and repopulation of migratory birds.

This kind of urbanisation dynamic can be viewed as a desertification cause when its direct and indirect effects are considered to be:

  • irreversible loss of soil, particularly of productive soils suitable for agricultural crops, due to direct soil sealing by structures, to quarrying waste disposal, pollution, etc.;
  • irreversible loss of vegetation cover and natural sites and their fragile ecosystems;
  • alteration of hydrological regime and increased frequency of flooding;
  • progressive quantitative and qualitative impoverishment of water resources due to overexploitation (increasing demand), salinization and pollution;
  • urban and industrial pollution;
  • increasing competition between rural and urban water needs, accentuating the crisis of rural areas;
  • landscape degradation, microclimate change.

These environmental problems, widespread in the Northern Mediterranean countries, are more severe in those areas where during the last decades development policies have favoured mass tourism. Tourism in the Mediterranean is characterised by movements of people mainly concentrated in summer period towards areas of interest; more than 30% of world tourism is attracted by the Mediterranean region, 80% of which by the European countries (Spain, Southern Italy and France, Greece). The Blue Plan foresees for 2025 an average of 200/250 millions visitors per year. During their permanence tourists create an economic sector that satisfies all their needs. They introduce new urbanisation patterns, characterised by high per capita land consumption (extended residential and service areas) and more demanding quality of life standards (especially in terms of water consumption). The pressure exerted by these seasonal mass movement cause impact on the environment, economy and cultural and natural heritage, in some cases favouring development, in many others altering fragile equilibria.

When the littoralisation is driven by tourism development, other critical elements emerge:

  • urban development often quick and not ordered;
  • high number of buildings used only a few month per year;
  • "seasonality" of services;
  • abandonment of traditional economical activities to favour of not always sustainable activities;
  • a very strong anthropical pressure in very narrow areas with resource consumption and waste accumulation;
  • limited environmental responsibility and not sustainable behaviours of tourists.

Causes: opportunities gradient. Essentially caused by political, economic, social factors which result in better opportunities for investments and employment along the coast (policies/incentives supporting tourism development; different opportunities for new investments and; attraction of urban models of life; other). Land degradation in inner land (human induced water shortage and soil degradation) can strongly contribute to determine this opportunities and income gradient.

In some cases this flow can be favoured by recent climate changes, especially by the significant rainfall decrease. No clear trend exist for Northern Mediterranean regions, but this seems to be very relevant for other regions (data from Morocco suggest a strong and clear decrease of national annual average over last 30 years).


  • Kapur et al. (2004) Soil sealing: the permanent loss of soil and its impacts on land use. The MEDRAP Concerted Action to support the Northern Mediterranean Action Programme to Combat Desertification. First Workshop on Sustainable Management of soil and water resources, Athens (Greece), 15-17 December 2001, pp. 108-125.
  • Sommer S., Loddo S., Puddu R. (1998) Indicators of soil consumption by urbanisation and industrial activities. Proceedings of the International Seminar on Indicators for Assessing Desertification in the Mediterranean, Porto Torres (Italy) 18-20 Settembre 1998, pp. 116-125.
  • D'Angelo M., Enne G., Madrau S., Zucca C. (2001) Soil consumption by urbanisation: a case study in northern Sardinia (Italy). In options Méditerranées, Serie A n°44, Interdependency between Agriculture and Urbanisation: Conflicts on Sustainable Use of Soil and Water, pp. 287-293.
  • Evliya H., Paksoy H., Göçük G., Altinok A. (2001) GIS evaluation of the effect of urbanisation on Cucurova plain with the help of remote sensing. In options Méditerranées, Serie A n°44, Interdependency between Agriculture and Urbanisation: Conflicts on Sustainable Use of Soil and Water, pp. 107-118.
  • Auerneheimer C. Tourism, agriculture and the environment. The case of the province of Alicante. (2001) In options Méditerranées, Serie A n°44, Interdependency between Agriculture and Urbanisation: Conflicts on Sustainable Use of Soil and Water, pp. 171-194.
  • Mininni M., Migliacci A., Mairota P., Martinelli N. (2001) Ecology continuity at the urban fringe: the landscape of area north east of Naples and the Somma Vesuvio. In options Méditerranées, Serie A n°44, Interdependency between Agriculture and Urbanisation: Conflicts on Sustainable Use of Soil and Water, pp. 267-276.
  • Costa E., Passarelli D., Sturiale L., Salamone S. (2001) The enhancement of the Tyrrhenian coast of Calabria by endogenetic/endogenous development of local resources. In options Méditerranées, Serie A n°44, Interdependency between Agriculture and Urbanisation: Conflicts on Sustainable Use of Soil and Water, pp. 295-323.
  • Coccossis H. (2001) Sustainable development of the Greek Islands. In options Méditerranées, Serie A n°44, Interdependency between Agriculture and Urbanisation: Conflicts on Sustainable Use of Soil and Water, pp. 391-394.

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g Examples of reasons for littoralisation in Mediterranean areas
Author: Claudio Zucca <nrd@uniss.it>

Typical examples of the phenomenon in Northern Mediterranean regions are the Iberian and Italian peninsulas (the pictures above are night time satellite images), where tourism is an important driving force. The case of the Province of Alicante in Spain is emblematic: the "wall of cement", due to an uncontrolled urbanisation along the coastline as the result of a development policy based on mass tourism, has had a severe impact on the environment. Now it is recognised as the cause of loss of fragile coastal ecosystems (humid areas) and of accelerated coastal erosion. Italy is one of the most populated countries in Europe, with an average population density of 189 people/sq km, but with a density of 500 in the plains and along the coasts, where 18 million people live (a 30% increase between 1951 and 1991). Tourist presence in coastal areas exceeds 30 millions per year. Tourist settlements created "linear cities" with a total volume of 3,150,000 m³, of which 850,000 are used only during summer. The related continuous coastal urbanisation by building residential settlements, secondary homes and other tourist structures has endangered areas of ecological importance and irreversibly degraded important dune ecosystems and humid areas.

g Spain
Authors: Jorge García Gómez <jorgegg@um.es>, Francisco López Bermúdez <lopber@um.es>

The concentration of economic activity in coastal areas as a result of population and urban growth, industrial activities, tourism and irrigation is probably the most important event in terms of territory development in the Murcia Region in the last 25 years. It started slowly in the 1960s and increased dramatically 1990s. It has caused important environmental degradation processes in the area. Littoralisation and land abandonment are two aspects of the same problem, since economic activities moved from the inland areas to the coastal areas and so did the population. However, not all the processes are simultaneous and sometimes "succession" processes in land uses are present. The first stage is the establishment of irrigation farming activities in coastal areas, with better climatic conditions for cultivation in the more profitable periods (autumn-winter), mainly in greenhouses and mainly for exporting to other EU countries. At the same time, processes of abandonment of dry farming activities in the rural areas inland occur. The settlement of urbanization associated with tourism and agricultural activities in the coastal areas has drastically changed coastal landscapes.

The development of tourist activities became the second level of the succession process. As demands for resources for tourist developments increased, land uses changes were promoted. The land used for agricultural activities and natural areas on the coast reached very high prices, and farmers and owners were persuaded to sell to urban developers. The consequence is coastal urbanization. This change in the landscape from greenhouses to tourist developments (resorts, hotel accommodation, golf clubs and associated activities) is now a common process in coastal areas.

Apart from the effects on the landscape, littoralisation also causes social imbalances and increasing pressure on natural resources both inland (see Desertification issues: Land abandonment) and on the coast. Water demands are increasing very fast and conflicts between users are arising, so that big problems are likely in the future. Pressures on natural protected areas and traditional activities are very high, sometimes causing very serious damage to the environment, as well as very important social and economic changes.

On the other hand, migration processes from inland to the coastal areas are being partially compensated by new tourist settlements in these rural inland areas. However, these activities are often not regulated, and they are adversely affecting rural landscapes and resources. At the same time public investment is much more concentrated in coastal areas, and inland rural areas become less and less attractive for the remaining inhabitants.

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g Agri Basin, Italy
Authors: Giovanni Quaranta, Rosanna Salvia <quaranta@unibas.it>

The Agri Basin is located in the Basilicata region, South of Italy. It is situated at the heart of the Basilicata Apennine Mountains and covers 1,730 square kilometres with a population of 94.291. The Agri river is 136 km and discharges into the Mediterranean sea.

The Basilicata coastline, which includes part of the Lower Agri Basin, features the concentration of the economic activities with strong territorial imbalance compared to the internal areas. Following the development of the intensive agriculture, the growth of the tourism is the phenomenon that mostly has characterized the dynamics of the coastal areas. During the five year period 1996-2001 tourist presences in Basilicata increased by over 60% with a 12.1% annual mean rate. In particular the growth in the Lower Agri Basin (Metapontino), that recorded a 41% increase over two years, was mainly attributable to the opening of new bathing resort, that has strongly increased the attraction of the area.

The map below shows the distribution of the tourist presences in the municipalities of the region underlining a clearly defined concentration in six areas in which 90% of regional tourism is focused. Some of these areas are composed of single municipalities, or a group of several. The areas shown in red receive more than 50,000 tourist presences annually and the Lower Agri Basin absorbs 73.9% of the regional tourist presences.

Tourist presence distributed per municipality (Basilicata Region) - absolute values 2001 (source: APT Basilicata)

The relationship between tourist presences and resident population (tourist density) offers an indication of the tourist vocation of the town and therefore, indirectly, of the role that the tourism develops in the town economy. The Lower Agri Basin contains many of the municipalities in which there are more than 1,000 tourist presences per 100 inhabitants.

Tourist density per municipality (Basilicata Region) - tourist presences per 100 inhabitants. 2001 (source: APT Basilicata and ISTAT data)

The development of tourist activity poses significant problems to both the environment and society. The area is one of great natural interest (Areas SIC) and the tourist pressure in brief periods of the year is characterised by an upsurge in water demand and in waste production. The development of the area is attracting strong external investment from organisations that will build new resorts and tourist landings. An ongoing study of the Basilicata Region is drafting a law to endow the Ionian coast with moorings for 1,500 boats and associated infrastructure.

This decision has to take account of the scarce natural replacement of the coastline by deposits from the rivers that flow into the Ionian, which are the same ones containing dams (Month Cutugno on the Sinni, Pertusillo and Gannano on the Agri, Camastra on the right tributary of the Basento) for the accumulation and the management of irrigation and drinking water. Along the rivers there are numerous enterprises (both authorized and unauthorized) involved in the extraction of conglomerates causing a progressive withdrawal of the coastline and a rotation northwards of the mouths of the principal local rivers. The extraction is so evident and accented that the planners of a new harbour, to be constructed in a resort in one of the Agri municipalities, had to undertake strong mitigation action unforeseen just a few years ago when the harbour was planned. Injections of 30,000 m³ of sand a year were anticipated (more than 3 m³ of sand a day) for the artificial reconstruction of the coast. The purpose is to reduce the erosion of the wave zone at the mouth of the Agri, withdrawing sand from the above wave zone that instead will be interested from an advancement of the line of coast for the obstruction of the right dock of the harbour.

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g Overview of how the indicators inter-relate
Authors: Claudio Zucca and Veronica Colombo <nrd@uniss.it>

The two main starting points that can lead to littoralisation dynamics are represented by land abandonment process in the hinterland and preferential development in coastal areas.

In the first case, a high Unemployment rate (connected to land degradation) leads to Land abandoned from agriculture [1].

The main driving force of preferential development of the coastal areas is the legislative framework (Water use policy/law, River basin management plan, Policy enforcement), the economic dynamics and subsidies (National funding, Regional/Local funding) that lead to intensive agriculture in the coastal plains (measured by Land use intensity) and to coastal urbanisation.

Moreover, both population flow and agricultural development contribute to concentration of economical activities, population and settlements in coastal areas. This process can be measured by Urban sprawl.

The urbanisation process can be effectively described by indicators that measure socio-economic dynamics (Population growth rate, GDP per capita, Employment index, Tourism contribution to local GDP), resources demand (Water consumption by sector, Aquifer over-exploitation), tourism development (Tourism change, Tourism intensity).

Both tourist and agricultural activities cause a pressure due to a competitive use of resources and services on environment. These consist in degradation and/or consumption of soil (soil loss due to Urban sprawl), water (quantified by Groundwater depth (change in), Water availability, Water scarcity, Water quality) and biodiversity (assessed by Biodiversity conservation and Forest fragmentation).

Value added by sector shows how intensive agriculture and tourism activities can lead to changes in terms of labour productivity.

Negative effects of littoralisation and uncontrolled urban sprawl, consisting in resources degradation, "seasonality" of jobs and services and abandonment of traditional activities, can be limited by sustainable land management policies.

Implementation of techniques of sustainable agro-ecosystem management, as Soil erosion control measures and Soil water conservation measures, can contribute to prevent inland degradation and the consequent land abandonment and population flow.

Introduction and application of sustainable policy as Local Agenda 21 or Penetration of tourism eco-label can lead to better urbanisation patterns. This kind of approach prevent socio-economic unbalances, pressures on natural resources and population flow from hinterland to coastal areas.


[1] Scheme not exhaustive, because exclusively based on the indicators included in the related table.

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