The Mediterranean Sea Is Sick, Very Sick

Human Wrongs Watch 

By Baher Kamal

Imagine a big swimming pool, as big as the Mediterranean sea—2,5 million km2. Imagine 150-200 million people sitting on its edges (resident costal population); other 300 millions coming from abroad every year (tourists), and 2.000 big ships and oil tankers crossing its waters at any given minute –let alone industries and oil refineries. Imagine all of them dumping their polluting waste and materials in this semi-closed sea, where a drop of water takes 80 to 150 years to be renewed through contact with open oceans.

Imagine, as well, that up to just few years ago, 48% urban centres lacked of sewage treatment facilities; 80% of wastewater was disposed of in the sea untreated, and industrial activities as a key source of pollution, coming mainly from the chemical/petro-chemical and metallurgy sectors.

Add to the above, according to the Athens-based UNEP/Mediterranean Action Plan*, other industries such as the treatment of wastes and solvent generation, surface treatment of metals, production of paper, paints and plastics, dyeing, printing and tanneries.

Cavtat, Croatia-Image: Ketone16

Refineries Dump 20.000 Tonnes Of Petrol… Per Year

It also reports that some 60 refineries dump into the sea nearly 20.000 tonnes of petrol/year. The use of chemical products in agriculture generates runoffs containing pesticides, nitrates and phosphates.

This sea is also under pressure from intense maritime activities: 30% of international sea-borne trade volume originates or is directed to its ports (its is estimated that 50% of all goods carried at sea are dangerous to some degree), and 28% of the world’s sea-borne oil traffic transits the Mediterranean, according to UNEP/MAP publication MedWaves.

All this takes place in a semi-enclosed sea, with two main exists: the Gibraltar Strait, some 14 km wide, and the Suez Canal, only a few meters wide. This implies that its waters need a long time to be renewed through inflows from other oceans: between 80 years and 150 years according to scientific estimates.

These and many more findings that unveil the dramatic fact that the Mediterranean sea is really sick.

But you do not really need to imagine anything—just take a look at the report “State of the Environment and Development in the Mediterranean 2009”** published by the Athens-based UNEP’s Mediterranean Action Plan. The following is a summary of what it says.

Climate Change And The Impressing Forecasts

The following forecasts are put forward by climate specialists for the 21st century:

An increase in air temperature of 2.2°C to 5.1°C in Southern European countries over the period 2080-2099 versus 1980-1999.

Marked modifications and sharp decline in rainfall, expected to drop to between -4% and – 27% in Southern Europe and in the Mediterranean, while increases of between 0% and 16% are forecast in Northern European countries.

Increased periods of drought resulting in more frequent occurrences of day temperatures above 30°C. The frequency and violence of extreme climatic events such as heatwaves, droughts or floods could also increase.

Several studies point to a potential 35 cm rise in sea levels by the end of the century.

Special Impacts

Water resources, where natural cycles will suffer from increased evaporation and decreased rainfall,

Soil, due to the acceleration of the already visible phenomenon of desertification, and forests, due to increased fire hazards and parasitical risks. These impacts are expected to aggravate current pressures from human activities on the natural environment.

Also Agriculture And Fishing

Climate change will also impact agriculture and fishing (reduced yields), the attractiveness of tourism (heatwaves, rarefied water resources), coastal zones and infrastructures (high exposure to waves, coastal storms and other extreme climatic events, higher salination, depletion of underground fresh water resources, sea water penetration in aquifers), and public health (heatwaves).

The most vulnerable Mediterranean zones will be those closest to deserts in North Africa, the large deltas, more specifically the Nile, the Po and the Rhone rivers, the coastal zones of Northern and Southern rims as well as high-demographic growth and socially vulnerable areas such as the Southern and Eastern rims, densely populated cities and suburbs.

Vulnerability seems higher in Southern and Eastern Mediterranean countries (SEMC) than in Northern rim countries (NMC). They are more exposed to accelerated desertification and soil aridity and to the rarefaction of water resources.

Water: Increasing Scarcity Versus Doubling Demand

The region suffers from conjectural or structural water shortages. 180 million inhabitants benefit from less than 1,000 m3 per year per capita and 80 million are facing scarcity (less than 500m3/year/capita).

Water demand has doubled over the past 50 years (280km3/year in 2007), with agriculture being the main consumer (64%). Losses, leaks and waste are estimated at 40% of total water demand (particularly in the farming sector).

To satisfy growing domestic demand, countries are increasingly overusing a share of non-renewable resources (16 km3/year), triggering preoccupying salination issues.

As regards infrastructures, although 20 million Mediterranean inhabitants are still deprived of access to improved water sources, access to potable water in the SEMCs is above the global average and showing real progress (+75 million inhabitants between 1990 and 2006).

Energy: A More Rational Consumption Needed

Energy resources are essentially composed of oil and gas (5% of the world’s reserves, concentrated in the South).

In 2006, fossil energy (gas, oil, coal) accounted for 80% of the energy supply in all Mediterranean countries, and up to 94% in SEMCs (75% in NMCs).

Over the past three decades, the share of natural gas (1 000% since 1971) and of nuclear energy (from 1 to 3%) has grown steadily, while the share of oil has dropped to 43% vs 68% in 1971.

Despite the considerable potential in renewable energy and the spectacular growth in windmill-produced electricity, reaching 21 GW in 2007 vs 3 GW in 2000, these forms of energy only still represent 6% of the regional energy balance.

Hydrocarbons are exported from four countries (Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Syria) which accounted for 22% of oil and 35% of gas imports throughout the Basin in 2005. All the other countries in the region are net energy importers.

Threatened Marine Ecosystems

The Mediterranean, biodiversity hot-spot, is home to 7/8% of known marine species, while only representing 0.8% of the planet’s ocean surface.

Over 50% of marine species originate from the Atlantic Ocean, 17% from the Red Sea, including ancient species and more recently introduced species following the installation of the Suez canal, and 4% are relic species.

Diversity is essentially concentrated in the West of the basin and in shallow depths (between 0 and 50m deep).

19 % of known Mediterranean species are threatened both locally and worldwide. The Mediterranean emblematic monk seal is classified as a species in critical risk of extinction. This is also the case for cartilaginous fish, with 42% of shark species threatened with extinction.

Two Thirds Of Species, Endangered

63 % of the fish and 60% of the mammals listed in the Protocol concerning Specially Protected Areas and Biological Diversity have endangered status, from increasing pressures (construction/ disappearance of such ecosystems as lagoons, grassbeds), coastal erosion, over-exploited marine resources and expansion of invasive species.

Devastating Fires

But these areas regularly fall prey to devastating fires. In the North, despite efficient but costly measures of containment, the frequency of fires is increasing (600 000 ha in 2007).

In the South and East, the occurrence of such fires remains limited but flare-ups are more frequent (61 000 ha in the South in 2005, 80 000 ha in the East in 2007).

Fire hazards are accrued by the declining practice of grazing and overgrowth, and by the foreseeable increase in the length and severity of dry periods induced by climate change.

Estimations show that, if efficient measures to combat fires and destruction are maintained, the carbon sink capacity of natural Mediterranean lands could account for the absorption of 10 to 15 million tons of carbon per year throughout the Basin.

Coastal Zones Under Stringent Pressures

Coastal zones are submitted to stringent pressures from land-based pollution, urban development, fishing, aquaculture, tourism, extractions of materials, sea pollution, marine biological invasions.

Constructions currently cover 40 % of the coastal surfaces. Recent studies show that development should be focused on coastal zone conservation and cluster rather than linear development initiatives, to ensure better cost control.

Constructions and modifications of ecosystems are detrimental to future coastal resilience. Estimations highlight that 1,000 million tons of sediments are carried to the sea by running water every year, 45% of which are retained in dams or extracted from river beds to exploit sand and gravel, thus disrupting the sedimentary balance and causing coastal erosion.

Economic activities

Agriculture in the Mediterranean is essentially dependent on rainfall (dry farming) and is therefore impacted by the state of natural resources. Productivity gains are highest in irrigated areas; these areas have grown by a factor of two over 40 years to exceed 26 million ha in 2005, i.e. over 20% of cultivated land.

Agricultural production focuses essentially on cereals, vegetables and citrus fruits. Over the past 40 years, total agricultural production in the SEMCs has made spectacular progress, with improved forms of production; and yet, these countries are more and more dependent on secure food supplies.

Trends in agricultural practices are evolving towards specialization and intensification to maximize yields and increasing the use of fertilizers and pesticides. As an alternative, organic agriculture has been growing heterogeneously since the 70s and essentially in the NMCs (Italy and Slovenia).

Fishing Reaching Limit

Fishing in the Mediterranean is characterized by its biodiversity which allows the development of region-specific fauna and fisheries. Production is essentially concentrated on the continental shelf and capture fishing on the coasts.

In the Mediterranean, yearly volumes are limited (1.5 to 1.7 million tons/year), representing less than 1% of global catches, but they are significant in view of the fact that the fishing areas represent less than 0.8% of the world’s oceans.

After a period of virtually unbridled development, fishing seems to have reached its limits. There is serious cause for concern as regards the status of economically and commercially important species (hake, red mullet, common prawn, sole, sardine and tuna), victims of such unsustainable overexploitation.


Tourism is an essential economic activity in all riparian countries of the Mediterranean. At the crossroads between 3 continents, the countries attract 30% of the world’s international tourism; in 2007 alone, they attracted close to 275 million international visitors.

The seasonal and spatial concentration of touristic activities strongly amplifies their impacts on the environment, generating pressures on water resources and natural environments (coastal construction), and increasing waste production.


In the Mediterranean transport sector growth is swift and virtually uncontrolled. Trends reveal the race to build larger cargo ships and to increase traffic, challenging harbor reception capacities and threatening marine environments (accidents, degassing operations).

Road transport remains the prevalent alternative, accounting for over 90% of the final energy consumption of land transport (98% in the NMCs, 99% in the SEMCs), with air transport growing sharply since 1990.

Transport accounts for 30 % of the total final consumption of energy (32 % in the SEMCs and 26% in the NMCs) and remains a major contributor to economic growth. There does not seem to be any real decoupling between transport and economic growth.


Waste is responsible for the greatest pressures on the environment. Closely correlated with economic growth and in particular with consumption patterns and production trends, the quantity of waste generated has steadily increased.

In the NMCs, the yearly volume increased by 19 % over the period 2000-2005 versus a growth of only 1.9 % in GDP over the same period. In the SEMCs, the situation is comparable. Although the organic fraction of waste is diminishing, the fraction of high calorific value waste is growing strongly to the increased number of packaging.

The use of hazardous substances, such as heavy metals, has been kept in check by technological progress.

Sewage And Wastewater

In the Mediterranean as in the rest of the world, access to sewerage and wastewater treatment systems is not on a par with access to potable water, but the situation is notably better than the global average.

In 2006, approximately 27 million inhabitants of rural areas still do not have access to basic sewerage systems.

Thus, the rate of collected and treated wastewater through a public sewerage system varies from 7 % to 90 %. With the exception of Morocco, where 80 % of collected wastewater is treated, Southern countries are not well-equipped in treatment plants and at regional level, there are no treatment plants in 40 % of the cities with over 2,000 inhabitants, representing nearly 14 million people in 2004.

Delayed availability of sewerage systems and even more of wastewater treatment facilities contributes to the degradation of resources, aggravates water supply difficulties and fuels conflicts between the two «services»: potable water supply and wastewater purification.

Invasive Species

After the destruction of habitats, biological invasions in the marine environment are the second cause of biodiversity loss.

They threaten indigenous species, local economies and public health. 56 % of the 925 exotic species currently inventoried in the Mediterranean have established sustainable populations and continue to prosper.

Almost half of these species have penetrated the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal, 28 % via marine transport and 10 % via aquaculture. Since 1995, observations show a clear increase in the appearance of such species, with new introductions every 1,3 weeks vs one every 4,5 weeks in 1995.

Conclusion: The Mediterranean sea is sick. It does not look like, but it is. (2011 Human Wrongs Watch)


Full report:

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