Conference ripples the waters

Mediterranean states must not allow political expediency to trump environmental concerns; otherwise the strained basin they share will suffer from more instability and irreparable ecological damage, a conference on sustainable development underscored last week. Mediterranean deputies and environmentalists were meeting in Turkey in a bid to kick-start sustainable development strategies for the region and to promote public awareness of ecological degradation and the requisite remedial action. Earlier, a former Turkish president injected controversy into what was otherwise an atmosphere of general consensus. Suleyman Demirel shrugged off diplomatic niceties and sparked controversy on the eve of the sustainability session by saying that Turkey has the right to use its water resources as it wished. «This is our water and, of course, we understand that our neighbors need it. Let them come to us and say how much they need and we will negotiate,» Demirel, often dubbed «the king of dams,» told a mainly Turkish audience on the fringe of the two-day meeting in Istanbul. Delegates took issue with Demirel’s «disturbing» remarks and some privately accused the former president of eschewing the sustainability agenda for the sake of Ankara’s national interest. No vote-getters Representatives of the Circle of Mediterranean Parliamentarians for Sustainable Development (COMPSUD), agreed that sustainable development strategies have so far been held ransom to political pragmatism. «Every government is in power for four or eight years, and its performance during that time determines whether it will be re-elected; it isn’t remotely interested in what will happen to the planet in 50 years’ time,» said Nikos Georgiadis, a Greek conservative deputy who was elected chairman of COMPSUD with a two-year mandate. Georgiadis said narrow partisan objectives are the main stumbling block to the promotion of sustainable development policies in the Mediterranean region and beyond. Sustainability programs are not vote-getters, he said, and governments normally don’t think they have a dog in the fight for a sustainable future. But such myopic behavior, Georgiadis warned, essentially amounts to «stealing from your children.» «Short-termism is standard practice in politics. So here you have to completely reverse perceptions of what politicians do,» he said on the sidelines of the meeting, stressing the need to communicate a sense of purpose to the broad public. Michael Scoullos, chairman of MIO-ECSDE (Mediterranean Information Office for Environment, Culture and Sustainable Development), noted that partisan bickering and political shortsightedness have taken their toll on the protection of the environment and said progress can only come through a more consensual approach. «Some policies must be above partisan rivalry. There has to be a gentlemen’s agreement among parties on environmental issues,» he told Kathimerini English Edition, pointing to similar steps in foreign policy and the economy. The event, which follows last December’s meeting in Cartagena, Spain, drew 18 deputies and 29 NGO members from 15 states. It was organized by the Global Water Partnership-Mediterranean (GWP-Med) and the Athens-based MIO-ECSDE in cooperation with the local Marmara Group Foundation. Topics ranged from the environmental, political, economic and social aspects of development to technical issues and public awareness building. Participants discussed the main developments and key processes in the promotion of sustainability programs in the region, most importantly the Mediterranean Strategy for Sustainable Development (MSSD), which is currently being drafted by the UN’s Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP). The blueprint should be ready for adoption by November 2005. The gathering was held against a grim backdrop of escalating environmental degradation in the Mediterranean basin. Surging populations, pollution, and unchecked exploitation of resources have intensified the strain on resources, fueling tension between neighboring states, particularly those sharing transboundary waters. Delegates at the 2002 UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg warned that the next big conflict could be triggered by water deficits. Some of the participants in Istanbul broke with the self-congratulatory mood of the gathering and cautioned for more humble aspirations. «We need measurable goals, not grand strategies. We must overcome the stage where we talk about big goals and move on to more practical things,» Rakefet Katz of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) said in an interview. Others were more upbeat. Scoullos said that despite some teething problems, the sustainability movement is gathering steam. «The path [to sustainable development] is now open; we will sooner or later move in that direction. There is simply too much at stake. The cost will be far greater unless policies are hammered out on the basis of sustainability,» Scoullos said. But it was the unilateralist stand taken by Demirel ahead of the COMPSUD conference that jolted the delegates. The former Turkish president defended his dam legacy and, effectively, Turkey’s lone-wolf record on sustainability issues. Damned projects Ziyad Alawneh, representative of a Jordanian non-governmental organization, said Turkey is playing upon the global conjuncture – the Iraqi occupation and diplomatic heat on Syria – to advance its economic and geopolitical interests, after getting the US go-ahead. «It was very disturbing,» Alawneh said of Demirel’s speech. «He made clear that Turkey treats water as a commodity; that its ultimate aim is to trade water for oil,» he added. Turkey’s ambitious dam project, aimed at controlling the flow of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, has irked downstream neighbors Iraq and Syria. The proposed Ilisu dam project in southeast Turkey has been mired in criticism by environmental groups who claim the scheme would displace tens of thousands of ethnic Kurds and cause massive environmental damage. International concerns have kept the World Bank from investing in the project. «The wisdom of building dams is very controversial from the point of view of environment and sustainability, because it entails massive interference with nature which may ensure water as a commodity but also creates enormous and often unpredictable problems for ecosystems,» Georgiadis said. Environmental organizations have accused Turkey of systematically evading or vetoing agreements on transboundary waters. Ankara has steadily refused to ratify the UN/ECE convention on the transboundary implications of states’ activities and projects. The pact commits governments to inform and consult each other on major projects which are likely to cause environmental damage across borders. «Demirel could not have made a more inappropriate speech. It was like praising one brand of cigarettes to a non-smoker’s group,» Georgiadis said.