Under pressure to solve immediate economic problems, 
Middle Eastern countries seek to industrialize as 
quickly and as cheaply as possible. While developed countries around the world are very slowly adopting technologies and production methods that exert less pressure on the environment, Western industry at the same time sells its old, polluting technologies to less developed countries at cut-rate prices. Too often, the myopic drive for quick economic gains means that destruction is taken for development and deterioration for progress. Greenpeace and other international and local organizations are combating this mindset on several fronts.

Burning Trash

Dumping of obsolete technologies in the guise of “investment” in the Middle East is often backed by international financial institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Investment Bank. The World Bank regularly encourages incineration as a solution to waste management in developing countries. Despite promoters’ claims, twenty years of waste incineration has left industrialized countries with unacceptably high levels of dioxins and related compounds dispersed in air and water, adversely affecting public health. Concerns persist about the safety of incinerators in the Western world, and the levels of control and safety in developing countries.

Greenpeace is opposing a World Bank-funded project to build an incinerator for medical waste in Lebanon. Scientists, waste management experts and activists consider waste combustion an unsustainable method of waste treatment. Emissions of dioxins to air, fly ash, slag and water are only part of the problem. Emissions and accumulation of metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and general resource depletion are other factors that clearly speak against incineration. Future generations will inherit the toxic waste that incinerators leave behind.
Municipal waste is a low-tech problem, easily solved by reusing, recycling or composting separated waste materials. As manufacturers (especially the packaging industry) produce ever more complicated materials, some objects still pose problems after separation. Activists should work to control this unsustainable waste, and refuse to allow these “leftover” materials to drive the building of expensive incinerators.

Toxins at Club Med

When the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) adopted the Mediterranean for its first ever Regional Seas Program in the mid-1970s, it recognized that the degradation of the sea could be halted only by fully integrating environmental concerns into national plans for economic development. The Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and Coastal Region of the Mediterranean today includes six protocols, which, if implemented by regional governments, would effectively lead to the protection of the most important economic and environmental resource in the region. Greenpeace is applying pressure on governments who have been dragging their feet ever since to finally ratify and implement the protocols in the Convention. But government rhetoric has masked inaction. 25 years after being adopted by the UNEP, the Mediterranean Sea is more threatened than ever.

Signs of degradation are visible throughout the region — floating plastic, beaches covered with rubbish, toxic industrial waste stored in municipal dumps, toxins washed by rain into groundwater and eventually the sea. Along the Mediterranean coast, manufacturers of chemicals used in household and industrial products — plastics, plasticizers, packaging materials, pesticides, fertilizers, solvents — pump thousands of tons of toxic waste into the sea. For more than four decades, the Lebanese Chemical Company in Selaata has been dumping the acidic discharge from its phosphate fertilizer production, destroying the seabed, killing marine life and squeezing the livelihoods of fishers. Greenpeace sampling off the Selaata coast revealed levels of cadmium double the amount stipulated by Lebanese legislation. Cadmium, a carcinogen, also causes kidney damage and weakens the bones. The sea surrounding the pipes of the factory is acidic: samples found a pH level of 4, below the legislated standard of 6-9.

Haifa Chemicali, located on the northern coast of Israel, is another fertilizer producer discharging toxic effluents into the Kishon River, which flows into the Mediterranean. Research by Professor Eli Richter of the University of Jerusalem published last May has linked this pollution to various forms of cancer diagnosed in at least 20 marine commando soldiers who had been diving in the Kishon as part of their routine training. The authorities deny any direct connection.

Middle East Greenhouse

Climate change will critically undermine efforts for sustainable development in the Mediterranean region and add to existing problems of desertification, water scarcity and food production. Rising carbon dioxide emissions introduce new threats to human health, ecosystems and national economies in the basin. The most serious impact will be felt in North African and eastern Mediterranean countries.

If current trends in emissions of greenhouse gases continue, global temperatures are expected to rise faster over the next century than over any time during the last 10,000 years. Rising temperatures, increased evaporation, changes in the seasonal distribution of rainfall and its intensity will compound the economic and environmental problems the region is currently facing. Rising sea levels will accelerate the retreat of the soft, low-lying shores that mark the Mediterranean coastline. According to models devised by the UNEP, a rise in sea level of one meter or more could inundate approximately 15 percent of Egypt’s cultivated land, rendering millions of peasants landless.

Though virtually every country in the region boasts vast potential for solar and wind energy, national energy policies remain geared toward fossil fuel production and consumption. Even Israel, which possesses considerable expertise in solar heating, has not taken significant steps toward developing renewable energy technologies.

Nuclear Power in the Greenhouse Age

As the debate over the “greenhouse effect” has intensified, some argue that nuclear power represents the solution to global warming. However, even if we ignore the hazardous and costly legacy of radioactive waste, the nuclear promise is false. The huge expansion of the nuclear industry necessary to switch the world’s energy production systems to nuclear power would drain the resources of even the richest, industrialized nations — and simply cannot be considered by poorer nations.

In late July 2000, activists recorded a major victory when Turkey finally dropped its plans to build ten nuclear power plants by the year 2020. Research by Greenpeace experts in the field had revealed that the site for the first plant in Akkuyu was located in a seismically active area. The nuclear power industry — seeking new markets as demand for nuclear energy stations in Western countries declines sharply — had been courting Turkey for 36 years. All three nuclear consortia bidding for Akkuyu, NPI 
(composed of Siemens-Germany and the French Framatome), AECL (Canada) and Westinghouse-Mitsubishi, claimed that their reactors could withstand strong earthquakes, without providing any scientific proof. Greenpeace campaigned intensely for eight years against the Akkuyu project and the introduction of nuclear power in Turkey. Now the organization is focusing its efforts on shifting Turkey’s energy plans to greater energy efficiency.

The environmental problems facing the Middle East today have afflicted developing countries elsewhere. But rather than applying the lessons learned from other countries’ experiences, and shifting to less polluting technologies, for example, Middle Eastern countries simply re-enact old stories of environmental degradation. Sustainable economic development in the region must take full account of scarce natural resources and assess development’s likely impact on the environment. Squandering natural resources will negatively affect all economic sectors, including tourism. Immediate action is needed if the Mediterranean is to remain blue and beautiful in the future.

How to cite this article:

Zeina al-Hajj "Mediterranean Blues," Middle East Report 216 (Fall 2000).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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