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Mediterranean faces ‘desolate future’ unless drastic steps taken, UN warns

The Mediterranean basin will face «a desolate future,» mainly because of unchecked urbanization and human activities along the coastline, unless drastic and concerted action is taken, a United Nations report on the condition of Mediterranean coasts presented in Athens on Monday warned. Sergio Illuminato, of the regional activity center of the UN Environment Program/Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP/MAP), said that 40 percent of the Mediterranean coastal zone has already been covered up by concrete while more than 50 percent of the coasts is expected to be built-up by 2025. «In less than 20 years, another 5,000 kilometers will be lost to urbanization unless immediate remedial actions are taken,» he said. The dossier on the state of health of the Mediterranean coasts is drawn from a landmark Blue Plan study on the Mediterranean environment and development first released during a UNEP/MAP meeting in Portoroz, Slovenia, in November. Some 20 million additional urban dwellers and an extra 130 million tourists are expected in Mediterranean coastal areas by 2025, according to the Blue Plan prognosis. Illuminato said that urbanization, demographics and human activities have impacted the morphology of the coastal zone. «Twenty-thousand kilometers of sandy and rocky coasts, wetlands, estuaries, deltas and coastal ponds have already disappeared from the Mediterranean basin,» Illuminato said. Sobering price tag The ecological disaster comes with a sobering price tag. European investment in remedial action such as water purification, flood containment, protection of fish stocks and tourism support is said to cost an annual 2.4 million euros per square kilometer of coastal wetland. The average annual cost of environmental damage to the southern and eastern Mediterranean countries is estimated at a near 5.5 percent of their gross domestic product. Also, a study on Mediterranean water ecosystems compiled by MedWet, the Mediterranean Wetlands Initiative of the Ramsar Convention for the conservation and wise use of all water ecosystems, notes «a clear pattern of continuing deterioration in the status of many Mediterranean wetlands.» MedWet coordinator Spyros Kouvelis, who presented the report on Monday, said that coastal wetlands have continued to deteriorate over the past decade and are currently worse off than inland ones. «This is being driven especially by urban, industrial and infrastructure developments including tourism, from industry and agglomerations and intensive agriculture and fertilizers and pesticides runoff,» Kouvelis said, adding that the trend has intensified along both the northern and southern coasts. Officials at the conference said that promoting policies for coastal zone management under the UN sustainability development programs and the Ramsar convention guidelines for the wise use of wetlands could help restore the ecology and landscape of 4,000 kilometers of urbanized coasts between now and 2025. «About one-sixth of the Mediterranean coastline would be rescued, compared to the predicted baseline scenario,» a document released at the conference said. The main areas targeted by the proposed measures are urbanization, waste generation, tourism, loss of agricultural land, water stress and the north-south gap. Image problems But on top of fighting against the world’s environmental problems the UN’s environment agency for the Mediterranean is also busy grappling with its own image problems. A scathing external evaluation report made public last year warned against the organization’s waning political clout and suggested that officials take measures to shake off its «dusty» image. The organization has not shied away from existential debate and has moved to adopt some of the proposals. Officials will meet in November in Greece to discuss self-reform. Red tape and turf wars against rival EU environment agencies have added to criticism of UNEP/MAP as a costly talking-shop that has failed to leave a clear mark on environmental protection. The truth is when it comes to the environment tangible progress is often hard to assess. As Kouvelis put it: «No one can say what the state of the Mediterranean would be without all the UN efforts. But at least we know where we stand and where we have to go.» For more information log on to: www.unepmap.org, www.medwet.org, www.ramsar.org