Flamingoes in the Camargue. Wetlands must be protected as a crucial asset to Mediterranean ecosystems. (Photo: Tour du Vallat)

UPDATED February 2024: Marseille, France — Principle concerns for the protection of the Greater Mediterranean range from the urgent need for more imaginative – and effective – solutions aimed at sustainable tourism but also countering forest fires, the erosion of cultural heritage sites and the impact of climate change and other related factors such as drought on urban living, wetlands and local agriculture. As noted last year by Hervé Berville, France’s Secretary of State for the Sea, such factors not only affect the survival of the Mediterranean, but the whole planet’s seas and oceans. Hence the need, he stressed, for working “far more closely in collaboration with each other” as well as coming up with solutions that will benefit all.

Credible information and education are crucial parts of this approach. France, which has assumed the Chair of the Mediterranean Commission for Sustainable Development (MCSD/CMDD) for the next two years, wishes to take on an even more engaged leadership role for dealing with predicaments facing the Mediterranean and the world’s oceans.

Speaking at a specialized meeting of the MCSD in the French port city of Marseille earlier this month, Berville reiterated his government’s continued support for the One Ocean Summit, the most recent of which France hosted in Brest in 2022. He also emphasized his country’s commitment to the next UN Oceans Conference to be held in Nice in 2025. “This is because we fully recognize the pioneering role of UNEP’s Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP/PAM) as one of the most successful of the 18 treaties of (Barcolona) Convention,” he said. Established in 1975 and overseen by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the MAP has emerged as a model for other regional action plans for seas around the world with the MCSD multi-stakeholder body set up in the frame of the Barcelona Convention.

The Calanques marine park on the outskirts of Marseille. Visitors need to register to restrict daily numbers as a means of preserving this fragile Mediterranean ecosystem. (Photo: Plan Bleu)

Raising critical issues – and solutions

For Samia Ghali, 3rd Deputy to the Mayor of Marseille, “the Mediterranean belongs to all” and “that is how we should treat it.” She reiterated her city’s support for a Mediterranean-wide 80 percent curb imposed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on sulphur oxide emissions of polluting cruise ships by May, 2025. As part of such approaches, Marseille wishes to see even further efforts to reduce destructive cruise ship pollution.

At the same time, Ghali added that there should not be any form of competition amongst the ports of the Mediterranean as everyone, both communities and companies, must work together. “If we do not find solutions acceptable to all, then we will be at a dead end. People will not accept this.” The deputy mayor added that Marseille, which is France’s second largest city and co-hosting the 2024 Olympics with Paris, has already introduced various sustainable development initiatives, such as restrictions on the number of tourists able to visit the Calanques National Park with its sensitive marine environment. Founded around 600 BC by the Greeks as Massalia, Marseille prides itself as being one of the Mediterranean’s – and Europe’s – oldest continuously inhabited settlements.

Cruise ships in the Mediterranean must now restrict their carbon emissions by 80 percent…but is that enough? (Photo: International Maritime Organization)

Editorial Note: As part of the Swiss non-profit Global Geneva Group, Global Insights Magazine is co-developing a three-year multimedia initiative with partners on the Mediterranean and the world’s oceans. Its Help Save The Med (HSTM) Wiki Centennial Expedition, includes Wiki, a 103-year old, 20-meter wooden sailing ketch as its symbolic focal point for visiting all 22 countries of the Med. Written, video, cartoon and photographic content from climate change to lifestyles is made available for free in the public interest with the purpose of informing diverse audiences how the “Great Sea” has changed over the past century, and what is planned for the next. The project has a strong youth and educational component, but also seeks to work with foundations, scientists, policymakers, private sector and others in highlighting threats – and solutions – in a trusted and editorially independent manner. One of its key Knowledge Partners is UNEP’s Plan Bleu.

Over 100-year-old classic sailboats, including Wiki second from left, at the Gstaad Yacht Club’s Les Voiles du St Tropez (Sails of St Tropez) regatta in the south of France help emphasize how the Mediterranean has changed over the past century. But the presence of such wooden, sustainable craft also raise the question as to what actions the international community plans to take over the next one hundred years toward saving the ‘Great Sea’ and its coastal regions. (Photo: HSTM)

Ever since the 1976 Barcelona Convention on the Protection of the Mediterranean, local and regional partners have been seeking to come up with pragmatic initiatives that will not only enable governments, but communities, the private sector and civil society to act. While certain progress has been achieved, scientists and other specialists say, a high degree of urgency has now entered the equation. With over 480 million people living in Mediterranean countries, global warming and other related factors are already provoking significant temperature and sea level rises which could seriously affect much of its coastal population. Some parts of the Mediterranean, scientists warn, may witness sea level increases of up to 90 cm by 2100. Time is running out, they argue, making the need for even greater collaboration more imperative.

Beach cleanups are part of public awareness and engagement programmes across the globe, such as here in Bali, Indonesia. (Photo: IUCN, Vincent Kneefel/Ocean Image Bank)

An urgent need for action

The Marseille MCSD gathering outlined three specific priorities regarding Mediterranean action.

  1. The need to protect coastal diversity.
  2. The protection of Posidonia oceanica, commonly known as Neptune grass or Mediterranean tapeweed. This is a seagrass species endemic to the Mediterranean Sea by forming large underwater meadows and which command a very high carbon absorption capacity, capable of soaking up to 15 times more carbon dioxide than a similar sized section of Amazon rainforest.
  3. A collaborative practical revision of the Mediterranean Sustainable Development Strategy influenced by the MED 2050 foresight initiative run by the UN’s Plan Bleu. This is to ensure the inclusion of all the latest data for possible future scenarios for a more effective and resilient long-term plan for the Mediterranean.

According to Tatjana Hema, coordinator of the UNEP Mediterranean Action Plan, a sustainable blue economy could prove to become “one of the most effective long-term drivers” for creating more appropriate green models for all economic sectors. The recommendations of the MCSD are also expected to inspire the next meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Barcelona Convention and its protocols to be hosted by Slovenia in December 2023. Equally crucial, they will provide significant food for thought for the UN Oceans conference in Nice in 2025 marking 50 years of multilateral cooperation in the Mediterranean region.

Dealing with disasters, such as devastating earthquakes, floods and forest fires, is also part of the overall Mediterranean story. (Photo: AVITEM)

Better information and education to make people aware

One particular issue raised was the need for specialized institutions and scientists to get their message out in a language readily understood by all. This includes working more closely with media, but also schools. As pointed out by some, involving young people from across the Mediterranean is crucial. As is engaging youth elsewhere. Many of the problems encountered by seas and oceans across the planet, such as the Caribbean, the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, are similar to those of the Mediterranean.

According to UNEP, there has to be far more effective knowledge-sharing, particularly with regard to potential solutions, such as the seeding of more heat-resistant coral reefs, more sustainable fishing or more innovative water and energy usage. “We find the same problems all over the world,” said one representative.

How Banlastic operates.

Finding workable solutions, but also spreading the word, is key to many of the Mediterranean’s challenges. One social enterprise representative at the Marseille meeting was Ahmed Yassin, co-founder of Banlastic Egypt which seeks to tackle the problem of plastics pollution. By working with policymakers to ban single use plastic, but also offering alternative products, since 2018 it has been increasing public awareness through workshops, training, beach clean-ups and environmental events. Given that plastic does not biodegrade but breaks down into smaller particles and enters the food chain, warns Yassin, “by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish unless we do something about it.”

Tourism in the old port of Marseille. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

Sustainable tourism – a critical factor for improving the Med

Another key factor is the need for more sustainable tourism. The UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) considers sustainable tourism crucial for fostering economic and development, including the protection of the world’s seas and oceans. According to the Madrid-based agency, this means working with communities and businesses but also reaching out to tourists themselves. “Tourists could actually become key contributors to sustainable development, but they need to understand both the problems and what they can do about it. This is where information can play a role.”

“Some governments see tourism as the key to vibrant economies,” added Marina Markovica of the Mediterranean Action Plan’s Regional Activity Centres (PAP/RAC) designed to support Mediterranean countries in improving the sustainable management of their coasts. But this is not always positive. Croatia, for example, has witnessed an almost ‘uncontrollable” upsurge in tourism since the end of the COVID-19. “Local people are discovering that their towns no longer belong to them and that they are being completely taken over by outsiders staying in hotels or Air B n’Bs. All this provokes high prices and insufferable pollution. There needs to be a much better balance with more sustainable tourism approaches.”

Other concerns include the impact of war, notably Ukraine, but also ongoing fallout from the pandemic. Najib Saab of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) in Beirut argues that the Arab region of the Mediterranean has suffered significantly. “Both crises have led to immense disruptions in supply chains, energy, food shortages and price hikes – all of which have hampered environmental initiatives and investments,” he maintained. “Many countries, too, are dealing with internal strife and historic economic meltdowns.” The war in Ukraine combined with migrant and refugee issues are only aggravating such predicaments even more,” he added.

Global Insights editor Edward Girardet is a journalist and author focusing on conflict, humanitarian crises, environment and development worldwide. He is currently working with filmmaker Tom Woods on developing a three-year multi-media project on the Mediterranean.

Girardet is well-known for his dedicated coverage of Afghanistan since just prior to the Soviet war in 1979. His 2011 book “Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan” is considered a ‘classic’ (New York Review of Books) and one of the most informed on this country’s apparently never-ending humanitarian and economic turmoil since civil war first broke out in the summer of 1978. Other books include: “Afghanistan: The Soviet War”; “The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan”. (4 fully-revised editions) and “Somalia, Rwanda and Beyond.” Girardet is currently working on a new book, The American Club: The Hippy Trail, Peshawar Tales and the Road to Kabul.

Writer Edward Girardet reporting clandestinely during
the Soviet war in northern Afghanistan in 1982.
(Photo: Edward Girardet archives)
Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan
The fourth, fully-revised edition of The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan published by Crosslines Essential Media, a partner of Global Geneva Group. Although this current edition was pubished in 2014 much of it is still relevant. You can procure an e-edition through this LINK on Amazon. We still have a few hard copies left, too. If you would like a copy, please order with: editor@global-geneva.com Cost: 50.00 CHF/USD including p&p. DHL, FEDEX etc. please add.

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