I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside

Seduced by the dazzling waters of the Mediterranean Sea? Today, it has become the most polluted water basin in the world.

In The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (2011), David Abulafia writes:

“In remote geological time it was entirely closed, and between about 12 and 5 million years ago evaporation reached the point where the Mediterranean basin became a deep and empty desert. Once breached by the Atlantic, it is thought to have been flooded with water in a couple of years.”

This miraculous transformation went unremarked by human beings, who only evolved some eight million years later at the other end of the African continent. And yet the human race has had enormous impact on the region and not always for good. Abulafia picked up the trail some 435,000 years ago in order to craft a history of the Mediterranean Sea, “its shores and its islands, particularly the port cities that provided the main departure and arrival points for those crossing it.”

Mediterranean Basin, satellite image

Astonishingly, the Mediterranean has a surface area of 2.5 million square kilometres bounded by 22 countries with a coastline of 46,000 kilometres on three continents: Africa, Asia and Europe. It is a crossing point – as today’s migrants know to their cost – a gigantic salty lake, with only two points of contact with open oceans – the Suez Canal in the East and the Straits of Gibraltar in the West.

According to the UN Environment Programme’s Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP/MAP), this means that the waters of the Mediterranean need between 80 and 150 years to be renewed. In other words, polluted water stays there, circulating on average for a whole century.

Over 160 million people are permanent residents in urban centres situated along the Mediterranean’s coasts and a further 180 million tourists visit its shores annually. This adds up to some 340 million people concentrated in coastal areas during peak holiday seasons. The result is a vast dumping ground for domestic and urban solid and liquid waste.

Industrial activities also pollute the Sea, mainly from the chemical, petro-chemical and metallurgy sectors. And with 30% of all international sea-borne trade by volume passing through its waters, and nearly 25% of the world’s oil transported by sea, maritime traffic takes its toll.

The Mediterranean Sea is the locus classicus of Western civilisation. The Greeks, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Romans, and many others vied for supremacy here, bequeathing their cultural heritage and scientific knowledge to today’s peoples. Unfortunately, we have been inordinately slow on the uptake to learn that the natural environment will only take so much abuse.

To prevent the Mediterranean Sea from becoming sterile and reverting to its state as a (salt water) desert, concerted action is urgently needed to tackle pollution and marine litter. Otherwise, as David Abulafia’s wonderful book ominously concludes:

“To look back at the history of the Mediterranean is to observe a symbiosis of man and nature that may be about to end.”

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