MENA faces threat of Mediterranean burn out
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.