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Urgent measures needed to curb marine pollution, UN agency warns

The Mediterranean Sea is becoming a veritable dumping site for pollution of all kinds, even as its significance increases due to ever-dwindling resources, a United Nations agency cautioned at a media summit in Malta last week. «The Mediterranean is generally chosen as the most convenient dumping site – it’s a cheap and easy option and no one can see the damage being caused,» Fouad Abousamra, Athens-based program officer for the UN Environment Program’s Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP MAP), told the summit of journalists from Mediterranean countries. But though largely «invisible,» the damage being wreaked daily by both land-based and sea-based sources – which account for around 75 percent and 25 percent of pollution in the Mediterranean respectively – is extensive and must be curbed before it is too late, he said. Immediate action is needed to halt the destruction caused by thousands of tons of chemicals entering the Mediterranean every year in the form of untreated waste (including industrial waste) and runoff from agricultural activity, compounded by oil spillage from tankers and the impact of excessive aquaculture. Untreated waste Untreated waste being pumped into the Mediterranean on a daily basis is one of the biggest problems, but one being increasingly tackled through the creation of waste-processing plants, many of which offer biological removal of nitrogen and carbon. Overall, around 80 percent of wastewater that Greece releases into the sea has been treated, although the quality of treatment varies. This is a relatively good record, compared to many other Mediterranean countries (none of Albania’s wastewater is treated before disposal and Egypt and Morocco treat less than 20 percent of theirs before dumping it in the sea), but countries like Israel (which recycles all its wastewater and pumps it into the desert to use in irrigation) set the example. However, the projected rise in the coastal populations of many Mediterranean countries – from around 50 percent of the population to as much as 80 percent by 2025 – will necessitate much more widespread and intensive waste treatment if pollution is to be kept in check. Another scourge is the stockpiles of obsolete chemicals from old factories that are infecting coastal areas and endangering the health of residents, Abousamra said. The Albanian port of Durres is believed to be one of the most dangerously polluted by obsolete chemicals on the Mediterranean coast. A dumpsite where a pesticide factory operated until 1991 is believed to contain around 20,000 tons of toxic waste, some of which has been washed into the sea by rainwater. «The area poses an imminent health risk to thousands of residents,» Abousamra said. High pollution levels are reflected in the proliferation of toxic compounds, such as PCBs, DDTs, HCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethanes and hexochlorobenzenes), and mercury found in certain fish in the Mediterranean, such as the red mullet. Fish and other aquatic life are also affected by the impact of excessive aquaculture (fish farming) which has provoked an alarming increase in the number of nutrients – harmful pollutants – in the marine environment. One of the worst affected areas is the Croatian coastline, where masses of dead fish are washed up regularly. Oil threat Meanwhile, oil spills and leakages – the chief sea-based source of pollution in the Mediterranean Sea – are set to increase dramatically over the next decade. «The volume of oil being carried across the Mediterranean is expected to double over the next 10 years – from 400 million tons to 800 million tons per year, according to Rear Admiral Roberto Patruno, director of the Malta-based Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Center for the Mediterranean Sea (REMPEC) – set up to help Mediterranean coastal states respond to and prevent oil spills at sea. «And it is worth noting that the majority of this oil will not be chiefly for the use of European nations – only 30 percent of it will be destined for Europe. Most of it will be for the US market. But, of course, it will be the Mediterranean coastal states that suffer the consequences of the resulting pollution,» Patruno remarked. Plans to construct the Caspian Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline are expected to carry another 50 million tons of oil per year through the Mediterranean. And the operation of another oil pipeline, linking Burgas to Alexandroupolis – approved earlier this week in Sofia – will carry a further 35 million tons of oil through the region. Nearly half of the oil in the Mediterranean is the result of «operational discharges» – the small quantities of oil released by tankers each time they unload thousands of tons of water carried as ballast on their return from a delivery. «It is only a tiny fraction of the original oil load that they release, but a tiny fraction of a 200,000-ton oil tanker could be a few hundred tons of oil, and these releases are occurring daily,» said Darko Domovic, senior program officer of REMPEC’s Malta-based Oil Pollution Response Center. As for accidental oil spillages, they cannot be entirely eliminated – although there have been less of them in recent years – but «operational pollution can be curbed by the strict implementation and enforcement of international conventions and regulations,» Patruno noted. Problem solving But one of the key problems faced by both UNEP MAP and REMPEC is the enforcement of their protocols, as they do not have the authority to impose sanctions upon offending countries, even those that have ratified these protocols. The initiatives of the two agencies «need to gain moral weight, which will come from greater government backing, then the countries will respect them more,» said Athens-based UNEP MAP Coordinator Francesco-Saverio Civili. REMPEC has succeeded in promoting cooperation between countries in the region and is striving to create «ecological protected zones» but «we really need government backing,» Civili said. Another barrier to tackling pollution is that the responsibility is divided among too many authorities (central and local government, coast guard, private sector, local environmental groups), making it easier for responsibilities to be shirked, speakers at the summit agreed. One way of significantly reducing the amount of industrial waste that ends up in the Mediterranean is the widespread implementation of Cleaner Production (CP) processes by firms, according to Spanish-based environmental consultant and CP expert Victor Macia, who spent 25 years as an industrialist «contributing to pollution» before deciding to become part of the solution rather than the problem. «CP is good for small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) where decision-making is generally quicker but also for big firms, and it is generally a cost-saving investment too,» Macia said. The Athens-based Cleaner Production Center for Greek SMEs compounds the efforts of UNEP MAP to change the ways of pollution-producing firms but real progress can only be achieved if such procedures are embraced by larger firms too.