Landmark strategy looks to preserve unique ecology of Mediterranean Basin
By Simona Sikimic

Saturday, October 02, 2010

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s mountains, deemed to be under serious threat from climate change and urbanization, have been listed as among the top conservation priorities of the first-ever comprehensive plan to preserve the unique ecology of the Mediterranean Basin.

The five-year strategy, unveiled this week, will dedicate special attention to biodiversity conservation in the Orontes Valley and Lebanese Mountains; a large natural corridor which reaches from the mountain ranges to the sea and supplies almost all of Lebanon’s, and much of Syria’s ever-growing demand for fresh water.

In spite of the area’s invaluable contribution to the country’s ecology and infrastructure, it has come under increasing pressure from residential and urban development, which threaten the environment and the region’s indigenous wildlife, the assessment by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) concluded. Only 11.5 percent of the corridor’s surface area is presently protected.

Agricultural intensification and illegal hunting were also endangering 31 globally threatened species, and harming countless other species including endemic fish, lizards and snakes, the CEPF said.

“The Mediterranean Basin’s extraordinary place in human history and its role linking European, Middle Eastern and North African cultures has been made possible by its incredible ecology – from the abundance of its sea and the fertility of its lands to the rich variety of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates,” said John Watkin, CEPF grant director. “This ecology is still crucial for the economic and social development of the Mediterranean, and CEPF has devised a plan to try to ensure that, for millennia to come, it continues to support human well-being.”

Almost 30 ecological “hot spots” in Lebanon have been highlighted as in need of protection by the CEPF report out of a total of 1,567 key biodiversity sites across the Mediterranean.

Other areas include the Upper Akkar/Hermel, which has been selected because of its distinct position as the entry bottleneck for soaring bird migration from Europe and for its unique woodland composition which still comprises of 21 percent ancient tree coverage. The Litani River, home to several species of critically endangered fish, has also been chosen as a conservation hot spot, while the Lebanese Cedar tree won special mention a regional tree variety most worth conserving.

Aside from Lebanon’s mountain, five other conservation “hot spots” – Egypt’s Cyrenaican Peninsula, Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, Algeria and Tunisia’s mountainous plateaus and wetlands, the West Balkans and Tukey’s Taurus Mountains – were identified as the most in need of protection by the CEPF.

A first $10 million installment will now be made available to support biodiversity conservation across the Mediterranean and NGOs and conservation schemes are being encouraged to apply for funding provided in part by the World Bank, the Japanese government and the Global Environment Facility. A part of the money will go toward creating a River Basin Management initiative for pilot basins which will replicate best practices and reduce the negative impacts of insufficiently planned water infrastructures. It will also support adaptation to climate change by improving water use efficiency in agricultural areas.

Funding has been predominantly reserved for non-EU member states struggling to balance the growing demands of the growing tourism sector with their environmental needs.

“With nearly half-a-billion people living around the Mediterranean Basin and over 220 million tourists visiting the region each year, efforts to reduce pressures on the ecosystem are vital,” the CEPF said.

Lebanon, which is among the three most densely populated countries in the Mediterranean, already receives some 2 million.

“[We need] to ensure that tourism brings economic benefits without “killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” the report said.

Only 5 percent of the Mediterranean’s native habitat remains unspoiled, with coastal areas bearing the vast majority of the devastation. The sites in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, the Taurus Mountains in Turkey and the mountains in Syria and Lebanon support more than a quarter of the globally threatened species occurring in the hotspot.