Pollution in the Mediterranean Sea
Known as the cradle of
civilization, the Mediterranean region has been subject to human
intervention for millennia, so that little remains of indigenous ecosystems.
Yet the region is still an important biological resource. What exactly
is the "Mediterranean region"? For the UNEP (United Nations Environment
Programme), the Mediterranean region is determined by nature's borders
of the "olive tree line".
The Mediterranean Sea
covers 2,500,000km2 with an average depth of 1,500 metres the deepest
point being over 5,000 metres in the part known as the Ionian sea, between
Greece and the "foot" of Italy. The coastline extends 46,000km running
through 22 countries.
The region is known for its
particularly mild climate with uniform and moderate temperatures. Rainfall
patterns are however, more unpredictable with a high of 1,200mm per
year in Genoa (Italy) to a low of 100mm per year in Djerba (Tunisia).
Around its coasts are lands
rich in endemic species. The variety of flora is estimated at
over 25,000 species, over half of which are endemic. Turkey and
Greece alone contain a large proportion of endemic plants, which represent
a wealth not only of natural beauty but also of potential medicinal
and culinary properties.
The major rivers of the region
have generated invaluable wetlands such as the deltas of the Nile, the
Ebros, or the Rhone. These nutrient-rich wetlands attract an estimated
two to five billion migratory birds each year. Yet, only approximately
six per cent of wetlands previously known to have existed in Roman times
Similarly, forest cover
has been greatly reduced throughout the long history of human settlement.
It is estimated that only five per cent of the Mediterranean region
is covered in forests, mainly concentrated on the northern shore. Archaeological
remains show that there once were lush forests throughout the area,
where now often only shrub or desert remains. These forest areas were
particularly important in protecting the fragile soil from excessive
dry spells and water erosion from torrential rains. Unfortunately, largely
because of human pressure and agriculture, they have been removed, and
the desolation of some Mediterranean landscapes bear witness to the
important stabilizing role they had to play.
Although the Mediterranean sea covers only one per cent of
the world's marine areas, it contains some six per cent of its
marine species. Some of the world's most endangered species, such as
the monk seal,
can be found in the Mediterranean.Fish stocks are down to 20
per cent of natural levels in some areas, and the Mediterranean is now
a net importer of fish.
Today, 82 million people
live in coastal cities; by 2025 there will be an estimated 150-170
million. Today the southern countries account for 32 per cent of
the region's population; by 2025 that is expected to have reached 60
Seasonal population pressures are also expected. Over 100 million
tourists flock to Mediterranean beaches every year and this number
is expected to double by 2025. In order to cater for this booming
business, natural habitats have been replaced by modern resorts; breeding
and nesting sites notably of the endangered loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta-caretta)
have been destroyed to accommodate tourist facilities; and the extra
pollution generated is often dumped untreated into the sea, threatening
the entire eco-equilibrium of the region.
The United Nations Environment
Programme has estimated that 650 million tons of sewage, 129,000 tons
of mineral oil, 60,000 tons of mercury, 3,800 tons of lead and 36,000
tons of phosphates are dumped into the Mediterranean each year.
Meanwhile, 70 per cent of the wastewater dumped into the Mediterranean
The sea is also a major oil
transportation route and up to one million tons of crude oil
are discharged annually from accidental spills, illegal bunkering
and tank cleaning practices, as well as inadequate harbour facilities.
Pollution also reaches the
Mediterranean through its major river systems: the Po, the Ebro, the
Nile, and the Rhone which carry substantial amounts of agricultural
and industrial wastes. As the Mediterranean is almost entirely landlocked,
its waters have a very low renewal rate (80 to 90 years) making
them excessively sensitive to pollution.
Unrealistic subsidies on energy
have led to the excessive depletion of natural resources such as freshwater
and oil. Social and political crises such as war, poverty, immigration,
and political strife have also taken their toll on natural resources.
The erstwhile famous cedar forests of Lebanon have been totally destroyed
during the 15 years of civil war which ravaged the country.
Freshwater is a vital
source of all life. In the Mediterranean, its scarcity together with
the pollution of the existing resources, has reached alarming levels.
It is estimated that by 2025 one out of every two countries in the Mediterranean
will be using freshwater resources in excess of their regeneration rates.
Malta and Cyprus already do so.
Groundwater is particularly
important, but the quality of aquifers is difficult to maintain. Pollution
sources include agricultural effluent, industrial toxins, and sewage.
The population explosion, particularly in the southern and eastern basin,
has caused all three to increase well beyond sustainable levels.
The Mediterranean is facing
a turning point. The recognition of a developing crisis in the Mediterranean
has produced an increased political will to tackle environmental problems
and to ensure economic and social stability and sustainability. National
Environmental Action Plans have already been undertaken in all the northern
countries, as well as in Egypt, Tunisia, and Jordan. Most countries
have ratified the Barcelona Convention, proof of their goodwill to move
forward. What is needed now is practical action.
(this document is based on
a WWF report)