Mediterranean Sea: No time to waste

CAIRO – Environment ministers of the 25 European Union states and their southeastern counterparts have adopted a timetable for depolluting the Mediterranean Sea, stung by a warning that environmental degradation is costing regional countries up to 8 percent of their annual gross domestic product. Environmental campaigners however criticized the EU-led effort, saying that it does not go far enough toward addressing the challenges that beset the region. «Action will need to go well beyond business as usual, both at the national and regional levels,» Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas told the delegates here on Monday, sounding the alarm over the rising cost of inaction. According to World Bank data presented at the summit, the economic impact of coastal zone pollution in the region is up to a sobering 8 percent of the countries’ annual GDP. «One needs only to look at the estimated cost of environment degradation of the coastal zones, which in many countries is in the order of 2 to 8 percent of GDP, to realize the urgency of the situation,» said Inger Andersen of the World Bank. «This is a price that no country can afford if it is to develop on a sound economic basis,» Dimas emphasized. Population growth – more than 143 million people currently live along the Mediterranean coast – and economic development are intensifying the strain on the diverse yet sensitive ecosystem. At stake are major economic sectors such as fishing and tourism – also the powerhouse of Greece’s economy. «Economies are growing and pressures on the marine environments are increasing accordingly. Thus, it is more necessary than ever to integrate marine protection into economic policies,» said Jan-Erik Enestam, the environment minister of Finland, currently in charge of the EU’s rotating presidency. Clean horizon The much-hyped cleanup blueprint, dubbed Horizon 2020 and adopted last year by Euro-Med leaders in Barcelona, aims to wipe out the hot spots of pollution in the Mediterranean by 2020. Industrial emissions, municipal waste and urban wastewater are said to be responsible for up to 80 percent of pollution in the Mediterranean. According to the Mediterranean Action Plan of the UN’s Environment Program (UNEP/MAP) millions of tons of pollutants end up in the Mediterranean Sea each year from industrial activities on the coastal zone. The report, made public last month, identifies the main culprits of pollution as oil refineries, the metal industry, industrial farming, fertilizer manufacturing, the chemical and paper industry and sewage treatment. «The sad situation is that despite all the efforts [of the past 30 years], the reports prepared by the experts show that the quality of life in the Mediterranean is continuously being depredated,» Soledad Blanco from the European Commission’s DG for Environment said during a press briefing. In response, the EU is making an effort to pull together all the campaigns operating in the Mediterranean. With Horizon 2020, the bloc is also joining hands with the UN’s environmental blueprint for the region. UN officials, previously wary of the EU flexing its muscle in the region, now seem more comfortable with the prospect of a joint enterprise. The Cairo declaration takes note of MAP’s key role as a partner and the importance of its MSSD, a sustainability-oriented strategy, in the new cleanup campaign. «There is a clear indication that both organizations are now going to put their resources together to achieve the objectives of Horizon 2020,» MAP coordinator Paul Mifsud told Kathimerini English Edition. Euro-Med environment ministers will meet again in 2009 to review progress. Not enough Environment activists and non-governmental organizations however were unimpressed with the EU effort, saying it shuns key challenges such as desertification and the impact of rapid urbanization on the Mediterranean basin. «South Mediterranean countries are currently undergoing rapid urbanization. The volume of urban waste has almost tripled during the past 30 years; the air quality is unhealthy and energy use will quadruple by 2025. These issues are currently neglected by the EU,» Eugene Clancy, Mediterranean program coordinator at Friends of the Earth Europe, said. «The EU is also ignoring the burning problem of desertification in Mediterranean partner countries and its impact on agricultural output and rural livelihoods,» Clancy added. The EU’s occasional meetings with its southern neighbors, also known as the Barcelona process, were launched 11 years ago in an effort to spread peace and stability in a rather volatile area. The program came with a quite ambitious promise to establish a free-trade zone by 2010. No major political or economic breakthrough has been recorded so far, but officials remain upbeat. «Successful cooperation between north and south on a wide range of issues, including the environment, has helped to stave off pressure [on regional stability],» Greece’s Deputy Environment Minister Stavros Kaloyiannis told the delegates. The EU is reaching out to international financial institutions for those precious chunks of cash to fund its activities. The European Investment Bank (EIB) and the World Bank have thrown their weight behind the Euro-Med program, bringing their project portfolios under Horizon 2020. The European Commission tries to make the loans more attractive to national governments by offering grants to subsidize the interest rates. Policymakers have traditionally shunned the environment as a low-priority issue, but recent studies like that of the World Bank about the economic downside of pollution should force many of them to reconsider. Environmental groups complain that sustainability-conscious policies are usually put on the back burner as local politicians are reluctant to promote pay-now-benefit-later measures that may disaffect voters. Worse still, unwillingness appears stronger in countries that have the biggest pollution problems. Hefty price tag The truth is depollution initiatives come with a hefty price tag. «For the four countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt, we estimate that for the period 2007-2020 total investment in the sanitation and treatment required to halve pollution from municipal waste water is in the range of $700 million to $1 billion per year,» Andersen told the conference. The amount is more than double the average budget that these countries have allocated to similar projects in the past 10 years. But analysts insist that taking action will eventually pay off. The World Bank predicts investments in reducing the cost of pollution by 35 percent in Egypt would yield economic returns of more than 20 percent over the next 20 years.