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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.”