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News The storied Mediterranean faces climate change

In the first of a four-part series, the Monitor examines the impact of man-made pressures on the region.

From ancient Egypt to Rome, the fertile Mediterranean has sustained great empires for millenniums. But modern development is rapidly turning the cradle of Western civilization into a dry and inhospitable place, its coasts covered in hotels and many of its unique species driven to extinction.

In the past 30 years, coastal populations have grown some 50 percent. Coastal cities have doubled. Tourism has exploded: By 2025, 312 million tourists will visit each year. Water usage is twice that of 1950. More than 100 species are endangered.

Now, climate change is exacerbating the situation.

The region's climate may already be changing faster than projected. In June, a recording station in Athens measured the highest temperature ever recorded there, nearly 113 degrees Fahrenheit.

Overall, temperatures for the summer months were about 5 degrees warmer than average. Months passed without rain. Then deadly fires swept across the country, killing at least 67 people and scorching some 650,000 acres of land.

The abnormal weather in 2007 is not proof that climate change is here, scientists say, but it is a strong indicator. And it's a taste of what's likely to come if the world continues to spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

In Turkey, heat and drought caused major crop failures and forced Ankara to ration city water. By autumn, the water supplies in Cyprus's reservoirs had dwindled to 9 percent of capacity. Fires raged across Spain, Italy, Croatia, and Algeria in one of the worst seasons since the European Union began tracking in the 1980s.

This week, the 22 signatories of the 1976 Barcelona Convention, an agreement to protect the Mediterranean, are meeting in Almeria, Spain. Despite international efforts, however, the pace of environmental destruction in the Mediterranean has quickened.

Climate change adds a new threat to the list. The Nobel-prizewinning IPCC identified the Mediterranean – already hot and short of water – as one of the world's regions most vulnerable to global warming.

A new report by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) highlights the sea's eastern and southern shores as potential hot spots where climate change could turn the scramble for scarce resources nto sources of conflict, as well as increase the pace of illegal migration.

On a political level, the urgency of the Mediterranean's environmental situation has been understood for at least three decades. In 1975, just three years after the creation of the UNEP, the countries bordering the sea created the Mediterranean Action Plan and a year later signed the Barcelona Convention, committing themselves to regional environmental cooperation. It was the first such agreement of its kind in the world.

Over the years, the convention – expanded in 1995 to coastal areas – has served as the framework for a number of environmental initiatives – to reduce land-based pollution, for example – as well as an important foundation for regional cooperation. This week, ministers from the 22 Barcelona Convention countries and territories will hold their biannual meeting where they are expected to discuss climate change and agree to new regulations on coastal development.

The convention has often broken new ground on environmental cooperation, creating a model that has been used in other parts of the world. But it also illustrates how difficult transforming concern into effective action can be.

"Barcelona is one of the oldest conventions in the world and it helped create an awareness that there was a common good to protect," says François Simard, a Mediterranean researcher with the World Conservation Union (IUCN). "It's true that one can say it's a huge amount of energy that is going into that convention and the results are not enough. But without the Barcelona Convention, I'm sure things would be much worse."

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News type Inbrief
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Source of information By Nicole Itano | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
Keyword(s) UNEP-MAP, climate change
Geographical coverage Greece, Turkey, Mediterranean
News date 14/01/2008
Working language(s) ENGLISH