Northern Africa and coastal and marine environments


caption Figure 1: Coastal populations and shoreline degradation
(Source: UNEP 2002, Data from Burke and others 2001 and Harrison and Pearce 2001)

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 1). 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.

Overview of resources

caption Figure 2: Global distribution of mangrove, sea-grass and coral diversity
(Source: Groombridge and Jenkins 2002; Maps prepared by UNEP WCMC)

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 2). 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.

caption The UNESCO World Heritage site of Leptis Magna in Libya. The city was originally a Phoenician trading port developed by Septimius Severus, emperor of the Roman Empire from AD 193. (Source: J. Dugast/Still Pictures)

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. 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, where 124 coral species are recorded.

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

Offshore hydrocarbon resources are especially important. 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 and the now submerged archaeological heritage of the city of Alexandria in Egypt.

Endowments and opportunities

caption Figure 3: Reported marine fish catches in Northern African Countries since 1980
(Source: FAO Fisheries Department)

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 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.

caption Inshore fishers at the mouth of the Sebou River, Morocco. Moroccan fisheries are among the most productive of all Northern African Countries.
(Source: R. Arthurton)

Reported marine fish production has increased overall during the period 1980-2003, totalling about 1.4 million tonnes (t) in 2001 (Figure 3). 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. 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. In the Red Sea, where the total fish landings amount to about 22,800 t per year, 44 percent of the landings are coral reef-based.

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 thecontinental shelf off the Nile delta are fairly heavily exploited, 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. Egypt aims to increase Red Sea catches to 70,000 t per year. Sudan also has potential for increased production, notably of finfish, doubling its present yield of 5,000 t per year. 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. According to Egypt’s General Authority of Fish Resources Development (GAFRD), the total production from fish farms in 2003 was 445,200 t.

Tourism is a major foreign exchange earner, much of it generated in coastal areas. The cultural heritage sites are major assets with significant development potential over the long term. Statistics and forecasts indicate steady growth in this sector. Demand overall in Northern African countries, excluding Sudan, is expected to grow by 9 percent in 2005 and by 5.5 percent 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 percent and is expected to account for 15.4 percent of GDP in 2005. Much of its tourism economy is sustained by its Red Sea coral reef coasts, where activity is locally intense.

Challenges faced in realizing development opportunities

caption Box 1: Environmental Degradation of Lake Maryout, Egypt
(Source: UN 2005)

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 Multilateral Environmental Agreements (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. 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. 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 1).

Population growth in the southern Mediterranean countries will present major challenges in physical planning and policy formation to protect coastal areas. 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, semiintensive brackish water fish farms are increasingly vulnerable. As well as suffering population pressures, parts of coastal Morocco and Algeria are prone to damaging earthquakes. 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 (Box 1), though the situation is improving with many of the polluting sources now stopped. For example, in Tunisia, 65 percent of wastewater is now treated.

caption Box 2: Multiple uses and conflicts on the Moulouya coastal wetland, Morocco
(Source: Benkadour 1997, Khattabi 2002, Sadki 1996, Snoussi, Haida and Immassi 2002, Imassi and Snoussi 2004, Snoussi 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. 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.

caption Climate change may threaten coastal development
The city of Alexandria on Egypt's Mediterranean coast is vulnerable to sea-level rise.
(Source: TerraServer 2004)

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. 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. 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.

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 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 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 as shown in Box 2. Coastal erosion and saline intrusion are some of the expected impacts of climate change and its anticipated, associated sea-level rise. Coastal erosion is already widely reported, with major beach loss in Algeria and Tunisia necessitating costly renourishment. 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.

Further reading

This is a chapter from Africa Environment Outlook 2: Our Environment, Our Wealth (e-book).
Previous: Eastern Africa and coastal and marine environments  |  Table of Contents  |  Next: Southern Africa and coastal and marine environments

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



Programme, U. (2007). Northern Africa and coastal and marine environments. Retrieved from


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