Thursday, April 7, 2011

Serious Environmental Issues Facing the Mediterranean Region

By: Erol User

I have been an active supporter of action on global environmental issues through the United Nations and other international organizations. As a resident of Istanbul, Turkey, I am particularly aware of Mediterranean issues and support groups such as the the Hellenic Marine Environment Protection Association (HELMEPA).

Known as the cradle of civilization, the Mediterranean covers an area of 2.5 million square kilometers, spanning some 46,000 kilometers of coastline running through 22 countries. With a hospitable climate, the Mediterranean region has provided its inhabitants with abundant fishing and agriculture for centuries. Unfortunately, this has resulted in resources along the Mediterranean being significantly impacted from the time of classical civilizations in Greece, Turkey, and Egypt.

The major river deltas of the Nile, the Rhone, and the Ebros offer a particularly attractive marsh habitat for numerous species of birds, plants, and endemic plants. Rich in nutrients, the wetlands draw as many as five billion migrating birds each year. Unfortunately, the total area of these fertile regions has been diminished over the centuries, with only six percent thought to remain from ancient Roman times. Forest environments have been similarly disrupted, with shrub and semi-desert environments replacing what archeological studies reveal to have been dense, life-supporting forests. This forest destruction has continued into recent times: the famed cedars of Lebanon were decimated by 15 years of civil war.

Population pressures affecting the Mediterranean region come from a variety of sources. With over 80 million people already inhabiting Mediterranean coastal cities, this number is estimated to nearly double in the next 15 years. In addition, seasonal pressures of some 100 million tourists each year exacerbate sewage and garbage problems. According to the United Nations Environment Program, some 650 million tons of sewage enter the Mediterranean Sea each year, as well as significant amounts of marine life-threatening phosphates, lead, mercury, and mineral oil. Because the Mediterranean is largely landlocked, its aquatic environment has extremely low renewal rates: 80 to 90 years in most cases.

While the ongoing threats posed to the Mediterranean environment by unchecked development are acute, I am encouraged by international efforts that have emerged to combat this crisis in the past decades. The Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the Mediterranean, which initially went into force in 1978, has been particularly critical in initiating positive environmental policy changes throughout the Mediterranean region.