MENA faces threat of Mediterranean burn out

Friday 29/01/2016
A dead sea turtle is washed up on the beach in the port city of Sidon, southern Lebanon, on January 26th.

Barcelona - Anyone familiar with the shores of the Mediter­ranean, from Spain to Tunisia, from Turkey to the many islands that dot the sea that was the fount of so much of humanity’s old civilisa­tions, can only bear witness to the ravages that pollution, urbanisa­tion and an ever-growing number of tourists inflict on this closed sea.
Hundreds of kilometres of Span­ish, French and Italian coasts were raped by mass tourist development after the 1960s. Tunisia and Turkey followed, seemingly impervious to the consequences of the rush to the sun from northern Europe. Today 350 million tourists visit Mediterra­nean shores every year.
At the same time, the sea is vastly overfished. The virtual disappear­ance of red tuna off the coast is characteristic of collusion between a despotic Libyan regime and fish­ermen from northern-rim countries keen to earn as much as they could from fish sales. Some 90% of stocks in the Mediterranean are overfished, compared with 26% worldwide.
Fish are increasingly a luxury, out of bounds for most of those who live on Mediterranean shores with restaurants often serving fish from elsewhere and passing it off as Med­iterranean.
To this must be added the recent rush to explore for oil and gas off­shore, which has been more visible in the east than in the west of the Mediterranean: 40% of the eastern Mediterranean is covered by per­mits to look for hydrocarbons.
A major natural gas field was re­cently discovered off the Egyptian coast and off Cyprus lies much hy­drocarbon wealth. It does not take much imagination to appreciate how disastrous the consequences of an oil spill or well blow out would be in an essentially closed sea.
To which could be added the risk of terrorism in an area increas­ingly politically and socially unsta­ble. Terrorism afflicts North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. It has not, as yet, claimed tourist victims on the northern rim but such an eventuality can no longer be ruled out.
The volume of international ship­ping crossing the Mediterranean is increasing. No major accidents have occurred but it is just a question of time. In recent years, the sea has claimed tens of thousands of vic­tims as refugees of conflicts around the region desperately seek the safety and freedom of Europe.
Finally, there is the pollution from the ever-growing urban sprawl that is changing the coast of virtually every country beyond recognition.
Untreated sewage is common. Industrial waste adds to the woes of the sea. In Algeria, the result is disastrous. In Tunisia, gypsum de­posits from untreated waste from fertiliser plants have destroyed fish­ing grounds off Sfax and in the Gulf of Gabes.
Damage to the environment af­fects beaches that vanish because hotels or other buildings were con­structed too close to the sea. Ham­mamet and Bizerta in Tunisia offer perfect examples of such unfore­seen results of careless policies of yesteryear.
The publication of the World Wildlife Fund’s report Blue Growth in the Mediterranean Sea: The Chal­lenge of Good Environmental Status is timely and welcome. It stresses that, in an already dire situation, increasing the number of tourists who visit the region by 200 mil­lion-500 million a year by 2030 will destroy the ecosystem. The report analyses ten maritime economic sectors, illustrating and mapping their current state and future de­velopment trends to 2030 and their expected environmental effects.
A business-as-usual scenario is not an option as the current pace of exploitation of maritime space and resources is not sustainable. Profes­sional fisheries show a downward trend but aquaculture is predicted to expand substantially. Maritime transport will expand but, as with other economic activities, this re­quires coordinated, long-term plan­ning of the whole basin.
The WWF report invites the Eu­ropean Union to play a lead role in developing a shared ambition for the Mediterranean short of which, in the words of the group’s French director, the former Green member of parliament Pascal Canfin, the Mediterranean will suffer “burn out”. The sea’s ecosystem will col­lapse.
“Burn out” is an expression, de­rived from Graham Greene’s novel A Burnt-Out Case (1960) that de­scribes a patient suffering from exhaustion. It characterises the na­ture of the threat facing the Medi­terranean.
Trying to save the environment in such a context is a huge chal­lenge that requires strong-willed political leaders.
The optimist will read the WWF report as one that gives hope; the pessimist will wonder whether we will have to wait for a major catas­trophe to occur off the shore of a major wealthy northern town or resort to push the European Un­ion and the leaders of Europe into taking bold measures to ensure that the Mediterranean space and resources are managed in a better integrated and more efficient way.