PORTOROZ, Slovenia – Mediterranean countries must put the brakes on the environmental degradation that is taking a hefty toll on the region’s economies and societies, according to a strategy for sustainable development adopted during an UN environment agency meeting held here last week. But the four-day gathering of the contracting parties to the Barcelona Convention for the protection of the marine environment and coastal region in the Mediterranean, organized in the framework of the UN’s Environment Program/Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP/ MAP), was clouded by growing, if unacknowledged, concerns over the EU’s not-so-subtle drive to push its own environment blueprint for the troubled basin. According to a Blue Plan report on Mediterranean environment and development presented at the conference, the average annual cost of environmental damage to the southern and eastern Mediterranean countries hovers at nearly 5.5 percent of their GDP. Some 60 percent of urban wastewater is still discharged untreated while 100,000 to 150,000 tons of oil products are each year discharged into the Mediterranean, a closed sea. Among the chief challenges up to 2025 will be the north/south gap, continuing urbanization, burgeoning waste generation, the growth of tourism and transport, the loss of agricultural land and water stress, the Blue Plan prognosis said. «A lot of progress has been made but still a lot remains to be done,» MAP coordinator Paul Mifsud told a press briefing. Although admitting that the so-called Mediterranean Strategy for Sustainable Development (MSSD) «is not a perfect document,» the UN official said the plan will enable governments to address sustainable development issues at a national level. The document warned that unsustainable management of natural resources – such as water, energy, agricultural land and coastal areas – is damaging the main assets of the region, most importantly tourism and agriculture. It said that current demographic trends and soaring unemployment will intensify pressure on regional peace and prosperity. About 150 million people live in the Mediterranean coastal zone while the region receives between 200 and 220 million tourists per year, according to MAP, which is based in Athens. «The Mediterranean is not in a sustainable scenario at the moment,» Guillaume Benoit, Blue Plan director, told a press briefing. EU snub EU plans to launch a separate plan to clean up the Mediterranean Sea have not fared well with MAP officials – an unease underscored here by repeated official denials. An EU meeting in Barcelona November 27-28 is expected to adopt a Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) initiative on the «de-pollution» of the Mediterranean by 2020 – roughly the same deadline as MAP’s. Skeptics see the EU’s go-it-alone stance as muscle flexing by the more influential foreign ministers and warn that the perceived overlap will cost time as well as money. The EMP is run by the external affairs ministries and the European Commission Directorate General for external affairs. Notably, the European Commission and seven Mediterranean countries of the bloc, including the big payers France, Italy and Spain, are members of the MAP framework. Soledad Blanco, from the EC’s environment directorate, tried to soothe concerns of an EU snub. «We do not intend to repeat what has been done… everyone will do what they are best at doing,» she said. But reassurances also came from the MAP camp. «The EU initiative is completely in line with what the MAP has been doing,» said Mifsud, while Alexander Lascaratos, representative of Greece’s Environment Ministry, insisted that the two campaigns «were not in competition with each other.» According to sources, however, the forthcoming EU document will largely shun the UN’s Mediterranean blueprint. Food for thought Adding to MAP’s woes, the meeting, which coincided with the organization’s 30th anniversary, discussed the findings of a sobering external evaluation report that slammed the convention as «dusty» and raised many eyebrows among UN officials by cautioning that the organization has lost its true value and political clout. The report said that MAP needs to work on its image – a task that its publication made even harder. The head of MAP said the evaluation was «a bit too severe» but that there were lessons to be learned. «When people look at you from the outside they see you differently than how you see yourself,» Mifsud noted. The conference also endorsed national action plans (NAPs) hammered out by individual governments to grapple with pollution from land-based sources and activities. The documents identify the hazardous substances and activities that must be reined in or wiped out in the next 10 years. Fertilizers, farming and energy-industrial sectors are among the heaviest polluters of the Mediterranean Sea. Land-based sources are responsible for up to 80 percent of marine pollution, a recent MAP study found. Although MAP officials hailed the action plans as a political, moral and psychological commitment made in public by all Mediterranean countries, critics offer warnings over the lack of funds and a compliance mechanism to sting the countries into action – the commitments, after all, are self-imposed. But MAP officials do not lose heart. The driving force is not altruism, they say, but self-interest, which works in favor of the common good. But not always, it turns out. Greece has repeatedly come under fire by environmental groups for refusing to sign the convention’s amendment on dumping. Ecologists and environmental lobbyists accuse the government of protecting highly polluting industries to spare them the cost of modification or, worse, closure. Larco SA, a local state-run ferronickel producer, is dumping a million tons of slag right into the sea, Greenpeace says. Greek hot spots A report on priority issues in the Mediterranean environment, compiled by the European Environment Agency in cooperation with MAP and which was unveiled here, highlighted sea damage caused by poorly treated urban and industrial effluents, and runoff from agricultural areas. The report identified Elefsina Bay, Patras, Iraklion as well as the Saronic, Thessaloniki, Pagasitic, Amvrakikos and Argolic gulfs as Greece’s pollution hot spots. Participants also pledged action to reverse the decline of the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus), one of the most endangered mammal species in the world, as a result of deliberate killing and habitat loss. It is estimated that the remaining population in the Mediterranean, the bulk of which is located in Greece, has dwindled to less than 350.