Quest for cleaner seas

Environmental experts from Mediterranean countries Tuesday agreed on further steps to reduce marine pollution from land-based activities as the deadline for the preparation of national action plans to phase out hazardous substances expired last month. According to a study released by the UN Environment Program’s Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP) on the eve of the meeting, fertilizers, farming and energy industrial sectors are among the heaviest polluters of the Mediterranean Sea. Land-based sources are said to be responsible for up to 80 percent of marine pollution. Speaking at the end of the two-day conference in Athens, officials said that although significant steps have been made in combating land-based pollutants, progress has been slower than anticipated. «Pollution from certain land-based activities has been seriously curtailed,» Michael Scoullos, chairman of the Mediterranean Information Office for Environment, Culture and Sustainable Development (MIO-ECSDE), based in Athens, told Kathimerini English Edition. However, he added, «growing industrial activity and new trends, such as the relocation of factories on the southern coasts, create new challenges that have to be tackled.» Recognizing the adverse impact of human activities on the Mediterranean marine ecosystem, regional governments and the European Union, all contracting parties to the Barcelona Convention for the protection of the Mediterranean Sea against pollution have adopted a protocol for the prevention of sea damage from land-based inputs. Stepping up their efforts for more sustainable management in the region, the contractors in 1997 launched a strategic action program (SAP/MED) to halt the degradation of seas and coasts. The program identifies the harmful substances and activities that must be reined in or wiped out over the next 25 years, also providing a time frame for specific measures. Scientists say the main threats come from urban centers, such as untreated waste disposal and, the industrial sector, most importantly the release of toxins in the sea. Mediterranean countries have also agreed to hammer out their own strategies, known as the National Action Plans (NAP), to meet the requisite standards and obligations. The preparatory phase expired in September but although most countries, including Greece, have submitted their blueprints, success is far from guaranteed as many practical concerns remain. «Most countries have conducted cost evaluation surveys but have not yet secured the necessary funding,» said Scoullos, adding that many governments have turned to the EU for assistance. Representatives at the meeting, which was organized by MAP and MIO-ECSDE with the support of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), also complained about the lack of cooperation between governments, the private sector, local authorities and non-governmental organizations. Responding to these concerns, the conference agreed to set up a new platform to bridge the communication deficit and facilitate the implementation of the national strategies. The national action plans should be ratified by the contracting parties to the Barcelona Convention, including Greece, Cyprus and Turkey, at their meeting in Portoroz, Slovenia, Nov. 8-11. Some critics describe the meetings of the UN’s various environmental bodies as futile and expensive talking shops that fail to translate rhetoric into real change for people’s lives. But participants at the forum said their role was crucial in pushing the governments of the Mediterranean basin into action. «The technical knowledge to solve the problems besetting the region is here. But political will is largely absent,» Scoullos said.