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Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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focus on north Africa

A new UNESCO project was launched in January 1996 for enhancing coastal cities, in harmony with their natural environment: an integrated approach for sustainable development.

Coastal Regions and Small Islands

A new transdisciplinary endeavour has been launched by UNESCO entitled 'Environment and Development in Coastal Regions and in Small Islands' (CSI), in response to the needs of maritime nations for sound coastal management. Some of the technical and environmental issues to be considered include: loss of biodiversity, environmental pollution and degradation, resource depletion and natural disaster reduction. A number of social, economic and cultural factors must be considered in order to arrive at lasting solutions.

Urban development and freshwater resources

In June 1996, a group of experts came together in Malmo, a Swedish coastal town, to participate in the creation of a network of co-operating coastal cities in Europe and the Mediterranean area, which are known for their historical interest and cultural heritage.

The specialists - among them were anthropologists, hydro-geologists, architects and social scientists - had as their goal the sharing of ideas with a view to preventing or remediating the deterioration of these towns and to protect, through more rational management, the freshwater resources upon which their very existence depends. The mismanagement of water resources, in fact, has some direct implications on the economic and social development of coastal cities, as well as on the real possibility of maintaining and protecting their cultural and historical heritage.

For a long time, water management specialists have attempted to transmit their message to town planners, architects and coastal city mayors, obtaining, however, only partial results. At present, social science experts and those directly involved in the protection of the historical and cultural heritage need to have access to the specific methodologies for coastal management. Close collaboration among these specialists is thus needed.

UNESCO has decided to support this initiative. The objectives of this particular project are to:

  1. Launch a scheme for the exchange of assistance and know-how among coastal cities of Europe and those of the southern Mediterranean areas (twinning programme);
  2. Promote the use of a common language among the different expert groups identified as the principal actors of coastal zone development;
  3. Heighten public awareness among the coastal zone population; the participation and education of the local population constitute a major aspect of this project;
  4. Identify and map the areas where urgent intervention is needed;
  5. Establish a case study that would help to refine the methodological approach of the project and evaluate its impacts. The first case study selected will focus on the ancient town of Essaouira, Morocco's old 'Mogador'.

Freshwater resources

The attitude towards, need for, and degree of groundwater protection vary considerably from country to country and from aquifer to aquifer. However, emphasis is still largely on groundwater development and over-exploitation. The consequences of this over-exploitation may include: a decrease in groundwater level or a reduction in water pressures; the drying up of wetlands; a reduction in pumping capacity; salt-water intrusion and land subsidence.

Saltwater intrusion

In coastal aquifers, fresh groundwater is delicately balanced on top of denser saline groundwater. Once contaminated with salt water, aquifers are very difficult to flush and, most of the time, become unsuitable for a large number of uses.

Land subsidence

Land subsidence occurs when ground-water is over-pumped from a confined aquifer. As pressures within the aquifer drop, the aquifer materials and the overlying clays gradually become compacted. Land subsidence follows the consolidation of these sediments. Consequences include coastal flooding, structural damage and inoperable water and sewage systems.

What about planning for future urban development along coastlines?

What does the 21st century hold for these cities? This is not a matter of predicting, but of planning. No longer can we be content with setting urban policies in the traditional sense of the term; now it is a matter of defining and implementing global development strategies. Any city's future must be anchored in its individual identity. Its 'urban heritage' must be the starting point for the development of an urban policy. Land-use planning and development, for instance, should involve planners at local and national levels, particularly as concerns protection of the environment and historical heritage, land use, management of natural resources and siting of new infrastructure.

Case Study: Essaouira

'Essaouira, city in the wind'

On Morocco's Atlantic coast, a thousand kilometres from Gibraltar, lies the historic town of Essaouira. A small town, surrounded by a succession of walls with numerous gateways, the old 'Mogador' is now a small fishing town.

The Mogador site has been known from antiquity. In the 5th century BC, the Carthaginians set up a trading post and, at the end of the 18th century the port and town surrounded by their first ramparts were built facing the island. In 1765, the Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah decided to build the largest port of his empire and entrusted the work to the French surveyor and architect Theodore Cornut, a pupil of Vauban, whose task was to build a trading town with an all-weather port. Nowadays, Essaouira reminds one of Saint-Malo, designed by Vauban. A Genoese architect was responsible for the construction of the 'scala' on the western ramparts facing the sea, and a British architect for the Marine Gateway. A dozen trading companies were established afterwards in Mogador, accommodating nearly a thousand Europeans (British, Danish, Dutch, French, Germans, Italians, Portuguese and Spanish). Since its establishment in 1765, Mogador has been considered as an important cross-roads of cultures and civilizations.
photo from essaouira

Essaouira, today

Today Essaouira, with approximately 80,000 inhabitants, is the main town in a province of half a million people. The city now lives on arts and crafts, tourism and fishing. Like other Arab towns, characterized by medinas, casbahs and similar historical centres, Essaouira suffers from such problems as overpopulation, building deterioration and insufficiency of infrastructures. Its historic quarters represent an important cultural and historical patrimony which is now endangered. Rural migration into this small urban centre leads to economic and social stresses which deteriorate the quality of life. However, the site of Essaouira remains as a magical window on Moroccan cultural heritage and a centre for artistic creation, especially in sculpture and painting.

Cultural and historical heritage in danger

Today, the old walled medina is threatened by processes which have been set in motion by both natural and anthropogenic causes. Salt-water intrusion, land subsidence, coastal erosion and overexploitation of water resources contribute in particular to the degradation of the urban context. Protection of the surroundings of Essaouira's ecosystem is a condition for its survival.

Action plan for integrated town development: priorities

  1. Restoration of the Medina and feasibility study of a wave-breaker project far from the historic Medina, in order to stop the progressive coastal erosion;
  2. Temporary relocation of endangered families still living in the houses next to the wall;
  3. Rehabilitation of the historic habitat through the creation of various activities and the delivery of sanitary equipment into the Medina, in order to help the most disadvantaged families;
  4. Protection and re-establishment of the dunal coastal environment;
  5. Prevention of contamination in sea and freshwater environment;
  6. Rehabilitation of the three historical monuments of the city (Danish Consulate and the two Scalas of the port).

This case study reveals a large number of problems which are common to numerous other ancient Mediterranean coastal towns. However, explaining these problems needs transdisciplinary competence. The knowledge acquired should improve the comprehension of the existing problems and thus help other coastal towns.

Co-operating UNESCO units:

Coastal Regions and Small Islands Platform (CSI)
Management of Social Transformation Programme (MOST)
International Hydrological Programme (IHP)
World Heritage Centre (WHC)

For more information, contact:

A. Aureli (UNESCO Division of Water Sciences), e-mail: a.aureli@unesco.org


B. Colin (UNESCO Sector of Social and Human Sciences), e-mail: b.colin@unesco.org


Coastal Regions and Small Islands Platform (CSI), e-mail: csi@unesco.org

Local/regional contact:
Attention: Head of Office
35 Av du 16 Nov. Agdal BP 1777 RP
Tel: 002127670374, 002127670372
Fax: 2127670375
Covers: Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco

From: Urban Development and Freshwater Resources. UNESCO, 1996.
Updated for the CSI home page in February 1997.

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