Najib Saab. 25/6/2023

holding its twentieth meeting in Marseille, on the southern coast of France, the region was witnessing the most terrible humanitarian disaster it has known for decades. A fishing boat smuggling migrants sank in international waters off the coast of Greece, and the sea swallowed hundreds of men, women and children who were aboard, fleeing poverty and oppression. The hardships they face in their countries making them risk their lives in search of a better future.

The news of the disaster had not yet reached Marseille, when I spoke at the MCSD opening session about two dilemmas that should be immediately and powerfully confronted and resolved in order to tackle the environmental challenges in the Mediterranean basin and achieve sustainable development in its countries. I was referring to the immigrants escaping oppression and poverty from one shore of the Mediterranean and beyond, to the other side, and the repercussions of the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine. Sweeping immigration loose of any bounds, mainly triggered by oppressive regimes, will raise the number of those seeking refuge from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions- further multiplying as impacts of climate change build up. This will pose a serious threat to their countries of origin, which will lose enormous human capital, especially in rural areas that will become neglected, together with the devastating impact on the environment, the economy, and the social and cultural fabrics in the countries of destination. The Russian war in Ukraine might also turn into an open confrontation involving other countries, the noxious effects of which the Mediterranean region cannot escape, be it on the economy or the environment. Protecting the environment cannot be seriously discussed in the absence of genuine preparedness to face such major calamities, the probability of which is no longer implausible.

The quest to protect the Mediterranean marine and coastal environment is not new. The Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP), endorsed by the region’s governments in 1975, was the first component of the Regional Seas Program launched by the United Nations half a century ago. Those in charge of implementing the plan realized early on that social and economic development of local communities is a prerequisite for protecting the environment. For this reason they included in their programs initiatives to elevate the economic and social level of the population, and to enhance cooperation between the countries of the region whose ecosystems are among the most vulnerable in the world, threatened by extreme pollution and extinction. It is also one of the most vulnerable spots to the effects of climate change, demonstrated by a record rise in temperature that exceeds the global average, aggravated by drought and further depletion of water resources. However, the budgets allocated for remedial action remained small compared to the scale of the challenges.

The development element entered strongly as an integral part of the Mediterranean plan when the member states approved in 2016 the Mediterranean Strategy on Sustainable Development, which translates the global sustainable development goals (SDGs) into an agenda for the Mediterranean countries. The plan aims to establish a prosperous Mediterranean region pervaded by peace and security, whose residents enjoy a high quality of life, and where development goals are achieved without exceeding the carrying capacity of natural systems. This means investing in environmental sustainability to achieve social and economic development; and certainly, the expansion of oil and gas extraction operations in the coming years necessitates strict application of standards and rules to reduce the negative 

The basic goals included in the Mediterranean Strategy are based on achieving sustainable development in the marine and coastal areas, encouraging balanced management of resources, enhancing food security by supporting the capacities of local communities, and planning and managing Mediterranean cities in a sustainable manner. It also aims to deal with climate change as a priority, and to move to alternative patterns that adopt the principles of a green economy, thus achieving growth while respecting the carrying capacity of nature. The MCSD, comprising representatives of the governments of the 22 Mediterranean countries, along with 18 representatives of civil, scientific, academic and parliamentary organizations, was entrusted with developing this strategy and supervising its implementation.

Among the most important initiatives launched by the commission are a fund for marine protected areas, waste management on land and at sea alongside combating pollution, regulating fishing, urban tools, business innovation, capacity building to implement the provisions of the agreements, environmental education, dashboard and set of indicators to monitor MSSD implementation, and public access to information.

Documents presented at the Marseille meeting showed that MAP and its execution programs, together with the MCSD, have achieved many of their goals within the existing limitations. However, the major challenges facing the region require redoubling efforts, ensuring a more effective participation of all member states, and accelerating implementation. The starting point would be transforming the recommendations into laws ratified by the legislative authorities in respective countries, and then into action plans under the auspices of the executive authorities.

Migrants remain a top challenge facing the implementation of sustainable development plans in Mediterranean countries. The fundamental solution is to create appropriate conditions that encourage people to stay in their own countries, by promoting proper governance, democracy, local development and prompting the economy to create job opportunities, and above all linking aid to eradicating oppression, waste and corruption. Ultimately, any aid and cooperation package should embrace respecting political and human rights in a way that enables the population to live in dignity and freedom in their own countries, instead of seeking freedom and decent living on the opposite bank. Reducing the social and economic gap between the two sides of the Mediterranean, whatever the cost might be, and reforming the regimes, remain the only way to achieve security and stability, on a solid base. However, the solution is not that easy and simplistic, as the millions who have fled oppressive regimes in their countries and continue to do so, would not have stayed or been able to stay in their countries merely if there were more job opportunities, for example. They left because of oppressive regimes that are still in power; thus it would help more for neighboring countries and the world community to take a serious stance against oppressive regimes rather than normalizing relations, as if encouraging more oppression.

It is not possible to seriously discuss protecting the environment, whether on land, at sea or in the air, in the presence of these huge numbers of deprived people, whose ambition is reduced to trying to escape, even on boats of death. Let states and organizations help those within their own countries, and stop supporting corrupt regimes that take their people hostage and push them to flee in search of hope. This deadly competition between sustainable development and migrants in the Mediterranean should stop.