European and North African countries face a Mediterranean plastic pollution disaster

Tourist-sensitive countries, including France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus, are making efforts to combat the problem. (AFP)
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Updated 22 November 2021

European and North African countries face a Mediterranean plastic pollution disaster

  • Plastic waste is a growing problem for the 21 countries that share the 28,000 km Mediterranean coastline
  • Tourist-sensitive countries, including France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus, are making efforts to combat the problem

LONDON: For millions of people around the world, the Mediterranean conjures images of the perfect holiday destination — pretty waterfront villages, great food, beautiful beaches and, above all, clear blue waters. Beneath this picture-postcard surface, however, the Mediterranean Sea is in the throes of a man-made environmental crisis.

At the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille, France, in September, the Mediterranean plastic crisis was firmly on the agenda. Representatives from tourist-sensitive countries, including France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus, lined up to bemoan the level of plastic pollution and to highlight their own efforts to combat the problem.

According to a report last year by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the total volume of plastic waste in the Mediterranean, found mostly beneath the waves, could be as much as 3.5 million tons, with anything between 150,000 and 610,000 additional tons finding its way into the sea every year.

For the 21 countries that share the 28,000 km Mediterranean coastline, the half a billion people who live on the sea or along the 1,693 watersheds that feed it, and the 340 million tourists who typically visit in a normal year, this is a growing problem.

The Mediterranean Sea is in the throes of a man-made environmental crisis. (AFP)

But of all those countries, just one has been singled out as the biggest single source of the problem. The finger of blame is pointing squarely at Egypt, which the IUCN says is responsible for releasing more plastic into the sea than any other nation, and twice as much as the second-worst offender.

According to the IUCN report “The Mediterranean: Mare Plasticum” — Latin for “the plastic sea” — is “widely regarded as one of the most threatened environments in the world” and “is subject to a now ubiquitous, man-made disaster: Plastic pollution.”

The worst offender, says the IUCN, is Egypt, responsible each year for the “leakage” of over 74,000 tons of macroplastics — pieces with a diameter greater than 5 mm — followed by Italy (34,000 tons) and Turkey (24,000 tons).

Together, these three “hotspot” countries contribute more than 50 percent of the 216,269 tons of macroplastics that end up in the Mediterranean Sea each year, overwhelmingly as a result of “mismanaged waste.”

When it comes to microplastics — over 13,000 tons of which finds its way into the sea — Egypt fares little better, ranking second only to Italy (3,000 tons a year), with 1,200 tons. Tyre dust accounts for more than half of the total of microplastics, followed by textiles (33 percent) and the plastic microbeads used in cosmetics (12 percent).

Although bottles and other plastic waste is omnipresent on Mediterranean beaches, most of the polluting plastic is beneath the surface, fouling sediment and disrupting the life cycles of multiple species of fish and aquatic plants.

Perhaps the most shocking statistic is that of the top 100 locations in the Mediterranean basin contributing to the annual leakage of macroplastics, no fewer than 75 are in Egypt, but what is not clear is exactly how much Egypt is actually to blame for the statistics laid at its door.

After all, the Nile watershed, which alone contributes an astonishing 25 percent of the total leakage of plastics into the Mediterranean, is shared by Egypt with 10 other upstream countries, all doing their bit to pollute the mighty river system on its way to the sea.

Marine Moulin, a spokesperson for the Union for the Mediterranean — of which Egypt is a member and whose secretary-general, Nasser Kamel, is a former Egyptian diplomat — said: “Many coastlines have been identified as places in the Mediterranean most polluted with plastic, but as we know the plastic, once in the sea, doesn’t know any borders.”

A spokesperson for the ecological action charity WWF added that “as the Mediterranean is a semi-closed basin, it’s crucial that all countries put in place strong policies to reduce plastic consumption, ensure 100 percent collection of waste and increase recycling and reuse systems.”

Furthermore, “EU countries should support southern Mediterranean countries to increase investments aimed at increasing collection and recycling facilities. At the same time, EU countries should ensure that the countries importing their waste have enough facilities to effectively manage all their waste, internal as well as imported.”

Greenish has organized a number of beach cleanups targeting plastic waste. (Supplied)

It was hardly realistic, added the Union for the Mediterranean, to expect Egypt to deal with the problem singlehandedly, and there is a strong case for wealthier European Mediterranean states, with so much to lose in terms of tourism, to help out their poorer southern neighbors.

“Governments, the private sector, research and financial institutions all need to work collaboratively to redesign processes and supply chains, invest in innovation and adopt sustainable consumption patterns and improved waste management practices to close the plastic tap.”

Egypt is keenly aware of the plastic-pollution problem. Last year, the country’s environment agency said that Egyptians use about 12 billion plastic bags a year, causing “severe problems” in the Nile, the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

Greenish, a social enterprise running educational activities aimed at achieving sustainable development, has organized a number of beach cleanups targeting plastic waste. Co-founder Shady Khalil said that “Egyptians are becoming more aware of the plastic that we use, and also the littering on the beaches and in the resorts around Egypt.”

Nevertheless, he said, “waste management in Egypt is a work in progress.” He, too, believes northern Mediterranean countries should help Egypt with funding and, equally importantly, should be putting pressure on European companies, such as Nestle and L’Oreal, to reduce the use of plastics in their products.

“During our cleanups we find a lot of these companies’ products, in the Nile and also on the Mediterranean,” Khalil said. “Much of the plastic waste in Egypt belongs to companies from a northern country.”

Mediterranean  is “widely regarded as one of the most threatened environments in the world.” (AFP)

In April 2019, Egypt’s Red Sea province, home to some of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, such as the popular diving center Hurghada, announced it was imposing a ban on the use of disposable plastic items, such as straws, plastic bags and cutlery.

And, in a little-publicized side event at last month’s World Conservation Congress, Egypt was one of seven nations (along with France, Greece, Algeria, Morocco, Italy and Monaco) behind a new initiative, “The Mediterranean: A model sea by 2030,” which aims to “end overfishing, limit plastic pollution and develop sustainable maritime transport by 2030.”

But the crisis in plastics is not Egypt’s only environmental problem, and far from its most pressing. The environmental challenges facing the country are legion, with many demanding urgent action and at least one posing an existential threat.

Plastic waste is a growing problem for the 21 countries that share the 28,000 km Mediterranean coastline. (AFP)

Top of the crisis list is Egypt’s chronic water shortage, a worsening problem as populations in the 10 rapidly developing upstream nations along the Nile multiply, placing increasing demands on the finite flow of the river.

Egypt is rapidly heading toward what the UN defines as “absolute water scarcity,” the point at which the annual water supply for each person drops below 500 cubic meters. With only 20 cubic meters of water available from internal resources, Egypt’s population and all-important agricultural industry is utterly dependent on the Nile for its freshwater and, says the UN, the country is on course to hit absolute water scarcity by 2024.

Coastal erosion and the gradual sinking of the Nile delta is another problem, closely related to the increasingly impossible demands being placed on the river.

Part of the problem is the rising level of the Mediterranean, predicted to only accelerate as a consequence of climate change. But scientists have also found that the Nile delta, which on average is only one meter above sea level, is slowly sinking, thanks in large part to the reduction in the amount of sediment deposited in the delta as a consequence of the reduced flow of Nile water.

Other environmental problems are clamoring for the government’s attention. In August, the country was hit by an unusually fierce heatwave, which the Egyptian Meteorological Authority attributed to climate change, and the country continues to struggle with the seasonal curse of the “Black Clouds,” the recurring annual smog that gathers over its cities between September and November.

Most of the polluting plastic is beneath the surface, fouling sediment and disrupting the life cycles of multiple species of fish and aquatic plants. (AFP)

A breakdown by the Environment Ministry of the causes of the phenomenon gives an idea of the multiple issues the government must tackle if it is to make progress toward its climate goals. The burning of farming waste accounts for 42 percent of the problem, factory emissions 23 percent, vehicle exhaust fumes 23 percent and the municipal burning of waste 12 percent.

Climate change is, of course, at the top of everyone’s agenda, but even for this there is only so much money to go round.

When the 42 member countries of the Union for the Mediterranean met to discuss environmental issues and climate action in Cairo on Oct. 5, the main focus was on the failure of developed nations to make good on the pledge they made back in 2009 to allocate $100 billion a year, up to 2020, to help developing countries tackle the climate crisis.

Regardless, at that same meeting Egypt’s environment minister committed her government to “greening” half of its programs by 2024. This is an enormous task, given the current volume of Egypt’s CO2 emissions and general levels of pollution.

It was announced in October that Egypt wants to host next year’s COP27 session of the UN Climate Change Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh — great news for the hotels and restaurants of the Red Sea resort town, which were hard hit by the loss of tourism to the global pandemic.

But hosting the world’s leading climate-change event will cast a harsh light on the multiple environmental challenges facing Egypt. As Cairo intensifies its focus on these ahead of COP27, the hope is that the plastic-pollution crisis lurking beneath the surface of the Mediterranean will rise to the top of the government’s green agenda.

Twitter: @JonathanGornall

Mikati holds key meetings in effort to restore Arab trust in Lebanon

Updated 44 min 26 sec ago

Mikati holds key meetings in effort to restore Arab trust in Lebanon

  • Interior minister says steps will be taken to prevent smuggling and combat the drugs threat

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Monday held a number of meetings designed to help restore Arab trust in Lebanon, and the country’s diplomatic and economic relationships with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

It followed an agreement, announced in Jeddah on Saturday, by French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to work together to help the people of Lebanon.

The participants in extended meetings at the Grand Serail, the prime minister’s headquarters, included Defense Minister Maurice Selim, Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi, Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullah Bou Habib, Agriculture Minister Abbas Hajj Hassan and Industry Minister George Boujikian.

Other officials who took part included Acting Director-General of Lebanon Customs Raymond Al-Khoury, Mohammed Choucair, the head of the Lebanese Economic Organizations, and representatives of the Federation of Lebanese-Gulf Businessmen Councils.

Choucair, who is also a former minister, stressed the need for the organizations to work on resuming exports to Saudi Arabia and said: “We discussed new ways of doing that.”

During the meeting, Mikati said that “Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are fed up of hearing slogans that are not implemented.”

A number of people who were present told Arab News that Mikati stressed the “need to address the gaps,” and that “some issues the Gulf states are complaining about are right. We must recommend measures to address them, such as the establishment of additional towers on the borders with Syria in order to control the border.”


Prime Minister Najib Mikati said that ‘Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are fed up of hearing slogans that are not implemented.’

Mawlawi said that discussions had focused on the issue of exports to Saudi Arabia and concerns about smuggling.

He said: “We will take practical measures for anything that might pose a threat to our relations with the Arab states, and I will follow up on all judicial proceedings related to smuggling and combating drugs and captagon.

“We must all take prompt action to control the borders, airport, port and all crossing points, and we must (address) the smuggling happening through Lebanon. We do not disclose all smuggling operations we bust.”

Mawlawi added: “We intercepted a captagon-smuggling operation on Saturday. We are following up on it, and the people involved have been arrested.

“We will give practical answers to the smuggling taking place, and what might pose a threat to our relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states in this regard.”

He also noted that “in the case of seized narcotic substances, even if they are manufactured outside of Lebanon and brought to Lebanon to change the manufacturing company’s name and repackage them, the company’s license will be revoked, its work discontinued and its name announced.”

Regarding a call for the restriction of weapons to Lebanese state institutions as a condition for the restoration of Saudi-Lebanese relations, Mawlawi said: “We are implementing the Lebanese state’s policy and highlighting its interests.”

Nicolas Chammas, head of the Beirut Traders’ Association, said that “the biggest problem remains contraband.” He added: “We will work to make Lebanon, once again, a platform for the export of goods, not contraband. We are required to take swift, serious measures and we will take successive measures in this regard.”

Fouad Siniora, a former president of Lebanon, described Saturday’s Saudi-French statement as being “of exceptional importance in these delicate circumstances.”

It “resolves the controversy regarding many issues raised in the Arab region, especially with regard to Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon,” he added.

Sudanese protest military coup, deal that reinstated PM

Updated 12 sec ago

Sudanese protest military coup, deal that reinstated PM

  • Footage circulated on social media showed demonstrators marching in different locations in Khartoum and Omdurman
  • In the western Darfur region, the death toll from tribal clashes over the weekend climbed to at least 48 people

CAIRO: Thousands of Sudanese took to the streets Monday in the capital of Khartoum and other cities in the latest protests against the October military coup and subsequent deal that reinstated Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
Footage circulated on social media purportedly showed demonstrators marching in different locations in Khartoum and its sister city of Omdurman. There were also protests in other cities, including Kassala, Sennar and Port Sudan.
Security forces fired tear gas to disperse protesters marching in a street near the presidential palace in Khartoum, activist Nazim Sirag said. He said they also used heavy tear gas to break up a one-day sit-in protest in Khartoum’s district of Bahri. Around a dozen protesters suffered light injuries from tear gas canisters, he said.
In past rounds of demonstrations security forces used violence, including firing live ammunition at protesters, according to activists. At least 44 protesters were killed and hundreds were wounded since the coup, according to the Sudan Doctors Committee, which tracks protester deaths.
The Sudanese military seized power Oct. 25, dissolving the transitional government and arresting dozens of officials and politicians. The takeover upended a fragile planned transition to democratic rule more than two years after a popular uprising forced the removal of longtime autocrat Omar Al-Bashir and his Islamist government.
Hamdok was reinstated last month amid international pressure in a deal that calls for an independent technocratic Cabinet under military oversight. The agreement included the release of government officials and politicians detained since the coup and the formation of an independent technocratic Cabinet led by Hamdok.
The deal, however, was rejected by the pro-democracy movement, which insists on handing over power to a civilian government to lead the transition. The protests came under the slogan of: “No negotiations, no compromise, no power-sharing” with the military.
Monday’s protests were called by the Sudanese Professionals Association and the so-called Resistance Committees, which spearheaded the uprising against Al-Bashir and then the military coup.
Among the protesters’ demands are the restructuring of the military under civilian oversight, purging officers loyal to Al-Bashir and disbanding armed groups including the Rapid Support Forces.
“We will keep on using all peaceful means to reject and resist until the fall of the coup government and the return to the course of democratic transition,” said protester Dalia Mostafa, while taking part in a march in Khartoum.
The Rapid Support Forces are a paramilitary unit notorious for atrocities during the Darfur war and a 2019 massacre of protesters in Khartoum. They are led by Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who is also the deputy head of the ruling sovereign council.
Dagalo is seen as the co-architect of the coup along with Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, head of the ruling body.
Relentless street demonstrations have put pressure on the military and Hamdok to take measures to calm angry protesters and gain their trust. Hamdok has yet to announce his Cabinet, which is likely to face opposition from the pro-democracy movement.
In televised comments over the weekend, Burhan described the deal that reinstated Hamdok as “a true start” for the democratic transition.
He said they were working on crafting a “new political charter” with the aim of establishing a broader consensus among all political forces and movements.
In the western Darfur region, meanwhile, the death toll from tribal clashes over the weekend climbed to at least 48 people, all of them shot dead, according to the Sudan Doctors Committee. It said dozens of others were wounded, some in critical condition.
The fighting grew out of a financial dispute late Saturday between two individuals in a camp for displaced persons in the Kreinik area in West Darfur province.
The clashes continued Sunday, with Arab militias known as janjaweed attacking the camp and torching and looting property, according to Adam Regal, spokesman for the General Coordination for Refugees and Displaced in Darfur.
The clashes in Darfur pose a significant challenge to efforts by Sudan’s transitional authorities to end decades-long rebellions in some areas like war-wrecked region.

Four Iraqi Kurdish fighters killed in attack blamed on Daesh

Updated 06 December 2021

Four Iraqi Kurdish fighters killed in attack blamed on Daesh

  • Five other Peshmerga fighters were wounded in the violence late Sunday in northern Iraq

BAGHDAD: Four Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters were killed in an attack blamed on the Daesh group, a security official said Monday, the third such assault in less than two weeks.
Five other Peshmerga fighters were wounded in the violence late Sunday in northern Iraq that targeted an outpost north of Kirkuk, the source said.
Kurdish army forces confirmed the deadly attack but did not say how Peshmerga fighters were killed in wounded, in a statement accusing Daesh of responsibility.
It was the third attack blamed on Daesh militants in less than two weeks against the Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq.
On Thursday, Daesh claimed responsibility for an assault south of the Kurdish capital of Irbil that killed at least nine Peshmerga fighters and three civilians.
At the end of November, five Peshmergas were killed in a roadside bombing also claimed by the militant group.
Daesh seized swathes of Iraq in a lightning offensive in 2014, before being beaten back by a counter-insurgency campaign supported by a US-led military coalition.
The Iraqi government declared the extremists defeated in late 2017, although the Daesh retains sleeper cells which still strike security forces with hit-and-run attacks.

Israel: Palestinian car-rammer wounds guard, is shot dead

Updated 06 December 2021

Israel: Palestinian car-rammer wounds guard, is shot dead

  • Palestinians have carried out dozens of stabbing, car-ramming and occasional shooting attacks in recent years
  • Most have been carried out by lone attackers with no known connection to militant groups

JERUSALEM: A 16-year-old Palestinian rammed a vehicle into an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank overnight, wounding a security guard before being shot and “neutralized” at the scene, the Israeli Defense Ministry said Monday.
Israeli media reported that the alleged attacker was killed, while a ministry official declined to comment further.
The attack came two days after a Palestinian from the occupied West Bank stabbed and wounded an Israeli man just outside Jerusalem’s Old City and tried to stab a Border Police officer before being shot and killed. Video taken by bystanders showed the police continuing to shoot the attacker after he had dropped to the ground and preventing medics from approaching him.
The shooting drew comparisons to a 2016 incident in which an Israeli soldier was caught on camera shooting a wounded Palestinian attacker who was lying on the ground. The soldier was imprisoned for several months in a case that divided the country.
The Israeli Justice Ministry said the two officers involved in Saturday’s shooting were brought in for questioning before being released without conditions. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other top officials have praised the officers’ response to the attack.
Palestinians have carried out dozens of stabbing, car-ramming and occasional shooting attacks in recent years. Most have been carried out by lone attackers with no known connection to militant groups, which have praised the attacks without claiming responsibility for them.
Rights groups say Israel sometimes uses excessive force, killing suspected attackers who could have been arrested and did not pose an immediate threat. Israeli officials say forces must make split-second decisions in dangerous situations and that all such incidents are investigated.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 war. The Palestinians want it to form the main part of their future state. The territory’s 2.5 million Palestinian residents live under Israeli military rule, with the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority administering cities and towns.

Lebanese president, PM and parliament speaker express satisfaction with Saudi-French agreement

Updated 06 December 2021

Lebanese president, PM and parliament speaker express satisfaction with Saudi-French agreement

  • MP Ali Darwish, from Mikati’s parliamentary bloc, hopes 'positive signs to emerge in coming days’

BEIRUT: Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has affirmed his government’s commitment to honoring its undertakings for reform.

Mikati said that his joint phone call on Saturday with Saudi and French leaders was “an important step toward restoring historic brotherly relations with Riyadh.”

A joint Saudi-French statement, following the joint phone call between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and French President Macron with Mikati, linked “economic aid to Lebanon with the implementation of the required reforms.”

The statement reiterated demands that Lebanon should “implement comprehensive reforms, monitor borders, abide by the Taif Agreement, limit arms to the legitimate state institutions and not be a launching pad for any terrorist acts that destabilize the region (nor) a source of drug trafficking.”

Mikati also said: “I thank President Macron and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for their keenness in maintaining the friendship toward Lebanon.”

Mikati called both President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and briefed them on the phone call.

Mikati’s media office said that Aoun and Berri “expressed their satisfaction and stressed their adherence to the best relations with Saudi Arabia and all brotherly Arab countries, especially the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.”

Mikati called “all parties in Lebanon to appreciate the sensitivity of the situation and circumstances and not to take any action or interfere in any matter that offends the Arab brothers and harms the Lebanese.”

He added: “It is time to commit again to the policy of disassociation and not to involve ourselves and our country in what has nothing to do with us.”

The Saudi position toward Lebanon left the Lebanese anxiously relieved about the extent of the seriousness of the ruling authority in implementing what was agreed on in Jeddah between French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Although Macron succeeded in opening the door to a solution to Lebanon’s diplomatic and economic crisis with Saudi Arabia, and thus the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, after the resignation of Information Minister George Kordahi from the government following his statements about the Kingdom, there is a fear that Hezbollah will continue to embroil Lebanon in regional politics.

However, MP Ali Darwish, who is from Prime Minister Mikati’s parliamentary bloc, expects “positive signs to emerge in the coming days.”

Darwish said that appointing a parliamentary committee to try presidents, ministers and MPs in return for allowing Cabinet sessions to take place was “one of the proposals.”

Darwish told Arab News that “the Saudi-French move has undoubtedly breached the wall of stalemate in Lebanon’s relationship with the Gulf, which Lebanon is keen to be extremely good in the midst of the conflict in the region.”

On the implementation of the French-Saudi statement, Darwish said: “The reforms are contained in the ministerial statement of Prime Minister Mikati’s government, and they are his government’s agenda, and he is striving to achieve them.”

Darwish added: “The most important thing now is to restore the connection that was cut off, to return the ambassadors to Saudi Arabia and some Gulf countries, and to return the Arab ambassadors to Lebanon.”

Darwish said that the Mikati government would “never interfere in the judicial matter, as there is a separation of powers.”

However, he indicated that activating the Parliamentary Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers was possible but it required steps to be taken by parliament.

Darwish added: “However, the trade-off between this matter and any other matter, especially the dismissal of the governor of the Banque du Liban, is not on the table.”

Darwish said that Mikati’s concern “is securing the livelihood of the Lebanese people in light of the current severe economic crisis.”

He said work was “now focused on rounding the corners and bringing the views closer.”