History’s Greatest Sea Is Dying

The failure of countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean helps explain the difficulty of carrying out successful climate-change negotiations.

Enormous piles of trash are seen on a Lebanese beach.
Workers clean trash from the Mediterranean coastline in Lebanon. (Hussein Malla / AP)

Most of the world’s seas are in some kind of environmental trouble, but few have declined as quickly or from such precipitous heights as the Mediterranean’s eastern edge. Although it midwifed some of history’s greatest civilizations, the eastern Med has become a grubby embodiment of the current littoral states’ failures. Where the ancients sailed, many of their successors now junk industrial waste. The accomplishments of the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, and pharaonic Egyptians, among others, have only accentuated their descendants’ political and economic rot.

In recent years, the eastern Med has come to something of a “now or never” moment to salvage, or savage, the sea once and for all. Big, new offshore gas finds have set the countries along its banks against one another as they jockey for a share of the riches. Renewed great-power games, particularly over Syria, have turned the sea into even more of a geopolitical battleground. In some parts of it, warships and air forces from as far afield as Pakistan warily crisscross its waters. With much of Europe fixated on migrant flows across the Continent’s southern border, there are more obstacles to addressing the eastern Med’s environmental woes than ever before.

An awful lot is riding on this moment. The Med is warming at one of the fastest paces in the world (up to 0.12 degrees Celsius, or 0.216 Fahrenheit a year, on the surface), and it is choked with plastic. Though the Mediterranean constitutes less than 1 percent of the world’s oceans, it holds 7 percent of its microplastics. The coastal states continue to sully the sea with tons of everything from shipping oil to untreated sewage, meaning there’s scarcely an untarnished ecosystem left. (It’s a similar story on land: Naval bases sit alongside garbage-strewn beaches and coastal dump sites—relatively high military budgets juxtaposed with penniless environment ministries.) For the millions of people who depend on the Med for employment, and the many millions more who treasure it as a “blue lung” in a region of sometimes suffocating heat and claustrophobic cities, the sea’s struggles threaten to become their own.

But there might be an even more important subtext to the eastern Med’s decline. For millennia, those who lived near it thrived off one another, always trading and frequently cooperating from coast to coast, creating some of the greatest civilizations in world history. Yet that was long ago, and the region’s intellectual slump mirrors its environmental decay. Stifled by unilateralism, greed, and chronic short-termism, antiquity’s greatest sea resembles the contemporary world in miniature—and with this year’s United Nations climate talks having concluded in Madrid with little tangible progress, the lessons the eastern Med offers are not particularly hopeful.

“I’ve come back to the Mediterranean after 30 years and I’m heartbroken,” Gaetano Leone, a native Neopolitan who is now head of the UN Environment Program’s Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP/MAP) Secretariat, told me. “Are we ever going back to the blue Mediterranean with the best fish and the pristine beaches? I don’t know if it will go back to that impeccable romantic image.”

Some of the Med’s troubles are due to its unusual topography. Because it has few external outlets, it takes roughly 100 years for a drop of water to exit the sea, so there’s less dilution of toxins, and because some of the strongest currents flow west to east, the eastern Med bears the brunt of the entire littoral’s poor practices. But that’s only part of the story.

Conflict has scarred it in ways big and small. Most recently, in Syria, underwater pipelines at the Baniyas oil terminal were sabotaged, sending crude gushing out to the surrounding coastline and beyond, while Gaza’s bomb-damaged wastewater facilities continue to leak raw sewage into the shallows. As ever in war, the environment tends to become a distant concern.

A map of the Mediterranean Sea and its littoral states.

Years of economic and political dysfunction have also left a fearsome mark. Mired in varying degrees of financial crisis, parts of North Africa, Southern Europe, and the Levant have made marine protection even less of a priority. Greece is one of a number of countries to have disregarded some environmental best practices in its clamor for investment. “During the years of crisis, we tried to make as much of our coastline as possible,” Dimitris Ibrahim, a marine-program officer at WWF Greece, told me. “This isn’t just in Greece, of course, but the narrative became that environmental protection is a barrier to growth. People might say: ‘I want a healthy ecosystem to pass to the next generation, but I also need to feed my kids.’”

And when states fail to act in concert for extended periods, as has often happened in the eastern Med, there are unforeseen consequences. The Suez Canal, for one, has facilitated the passage of aggressive invasive species from the Red Sea, many of which, like the spiky lionfish, have run riot and gutted native fish stocks. The problems have only worsened since the enlargement of the canal in 2014, which Egypt seemingly excavated with little regard for the environmental impact elsewhere. “The situation is bad. It’s really bad,” Bayram Öztürk, the founder and director of the Turkish Marine Research Foundation, told me. “These days, we have 1,000 alien species in the Med. It’s like another Med in the Med.”

Those might actually be the more resolvable problems. The eastern Med’s deterioration, particularly of late, is also the result of a world that appears more unable than ever to forsake short-term economic gains, even as its environmental woes worsen by the day. Over the past decade, huge hydrocarbon discoveries have sparked a dash for undersea riches, as the likes of Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, and Greece have moved to tap their finds. In states’ zeal to extract, conservationists fear spills—with good reason. When a tanker sank near Athens two years ago, ill-equipped authorities struggled to contain it despite perfect conditions and its proximity to the capital, according to WWF’s Ibrahim. Were anything to happen near one of the isolated major fields, the impact could be catastrophic.

Conservationists also fear for the Med’s biodiversity, much of which is disappearing in a hurry as tankers, rigs, and swirling pollution appropriate habitats. Scores of dead turtles have washed up along the Israeli coast in circumstances that environmental officials there believe might be related to underwater explosions. Similarly, in Greece, a combination of booming marine traffic going to and from the Suez Canal and noisy subterranean energy exploration is killing or driving away sonar-sensitive sperm whales and Cuvier’s beaked whales. That fallout might only accelerate if major gas-pipeline infrastructure is approved as the European Union looks to wean itself from its dependence on Russia.

Above all, environmentalists and officials alike fear that the extensive naval buildups accompanying gas-field development will shut out environmental concerns while turning the region into even more of a powder keg. Turkey has transformed itself into a powerful maritime presence, pursuing a strategy that many of its neighbors see as an attempt to dominate the eastern Med. Egypt and Israel have also boosted their capabilities, in large part to guard their gas fields. Russia recently conducted its largest naval exercise in the Med since the Cold War, just as the United States is ramping up operations after decades of treating the region as something of an irrelevance. Even Iran and China might be muscling in: The former has been granted part of the port of Latakia, in Syria; the latter has invested heavily in the region as part of its Belt and Road initiative and controls a string of major Med ports, including Piraeus.

Though the chances of a clash are slim, the threat of one has been enough to freeze cross-border cooperation. Environmental activists in the Turkish and Greek areas of Cyprus have had to tread extra carefully as Turkey, which occupies the northern part of the island, searches for gas in waters that the international community doesn’t recognize as its own. Their peers from Egypt to Libya and beyond report increased state harassment. As the region subdivides itself into loose new alliances, with Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus in one camp, and now Turkey and Libya in another, conservation efforts are falling further and further down the agenda. “We reached this situation because of very bad management, political interventions, and obviously corruption, and that all affects the Mediterranean,” Fadi Jreissati, the Lebanese minister of environment, said in an interview. “To put it simply, politics is killing nature.”

Seas can take a lot of punishment without exhibiting the hurt, and that might be part of the problem. Most of the eastern Med still looks so stunning that it can be easy for the casual observer to disregard the rot. But it won’t maintain that veneer for much longer—because of climate change and rapid population growth, the damage is only going to come thicker and faster. “Every year, the storms get more violent and more unpredictable,” Dimitris Achladotis, a fisherman on the distant Greek island of Kastellorizo, told me. “Nothing that I see is normal anymore.”

There are a few clear takeaways. For one, the littoral states can’t go it alone on conservation, no matter how poor some interstate relations might be. The eastern Med is too small and too interconnected for unilateral action; its countries have all played a part in dirtying the waters. They will need to work together to fix it.

It appears true, too, that neither regional governments nor civil society can be relied on to prompt change, even if everyone cooperates. As a measure of how little most states are currently committing to this crisis, Lebanon, perhaps the worst pound-for-pound polluter in the Med, gives its environment ministry an annual budget of just $9 million. Most NGOs and pan-regional bodies are too cash-strapped, too cowed by their often-authoritarian home states, or too powerless at a time when many of these issues aren’t on officials’ radar. “We can make a lot of noise. We can breathe down the authorities’ neck, but if people don’t listen there’s a limit to what we can do,” said Asaf Ariel, the science officer at EcoOcean, an Israeli NGO, in an interview.

Commercial interests might be the Med’s best bet, though not ones of the oil and gas variety. More than 200 million tourists cluster along the sea’s shores every year, and there’s a limit to the amount of trash on the beaches, rashes from poor-quality water, or jellyfish swarms that visitors will tolerate. If, or most likely when, deteriorating conditions start to devastate tourist businesses’ bottom line, the consequences will be severe. The Med economies are too fragile to sustain knockout blows to one of their primary industries. Governments, residents maintain, will have no choice but to act, however they might feel about one another.

“If you can’t swim here, what’s the point of coming?” Margarita Kannis, a local-council member and an environmentalist on Kastellorizo, asked me. “It’s tourism or nothing in this part of the world.”