Governments of countries sharing the shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea have taken the plunge. They have agreed to a treaty -- which will cost them billions of dollars -- to control the most serious sources of the Mediterranean's pollution.
This latest and most controversial agreement, all part of the Mediterranean action plan, covers a wide range of pollutants from factories and domestic sewage works located many miles inland. They include heavy metals, pesticides, used motor oil, bacteria, even radioactivity. Not surprisingly, experts estimate the treaty will cost the signatories $10 billion to $15 billion over the next 10 to 15 years.
Yet Stjepan Keckes, regional seas director for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the man whose subtle political touch fashioned the treaty, believes it came none too soon. He warns: "It will take 10 years to see a reversal of the polluting trend in the Mediterranean."
The Mediterranean is a relatively shallow body of water -- averaging 4,500 feet in depth -- open only by a narrow passage to the Atlantic at Gibralter and to the Black Sea through the Dardanelles. For these reasons, the Mediterranean renews itself only once every 80 years. Approximately 100 million people live on its congested coastline, and by the year 2000 their number is expected to increase to 200 million.
But human sewage is not the only problem. Each year 60,000 tons of detergents, 12,000 tons of phenols, and 90 tons of pesticides pour into the Mediterranean. On top of this, 800,000 tons of oil and petroleum products (an estimated 10 percent of the total oil shipped) finds its way into the sea. Experts claim that human activity channels over 27,000 tons of heavy metals such as mercury and lead into the sea, compared with 2,100 tons that pour into the Mediterranean from natural sources.
Despite this heavy load of pollutants, the sea is an important source of food. A 1977 catch of sea food of 30,000 tons was valued at approximately $1.3 billion. A good deal of this food goes into the mouths of the more than 100 million tourists who flock to the sea's polluted shores each year for pleasure.
The political and economic differences among the 18 Mediterranean countries have threatened to sabotage the plan since 1972. The underdeveloped states on the Mediterranean's southern shore long argued that pollution control meant industrial stagnation for them -- a new form of oppression by the richer north. At each meeting, delegates from the south claimed that as most of the pollution originated in Spain, Italy, and France, these countries should foot most of the bill to clean up the sea.
Despite these difficulties, 16 Mediterranean countries signed the Barcelona convention in 1976 -- the framework for international environmental law to control the sea's pollution.
The new treaty is comprehensive and flexible. All pathways of pollution into the sea are covered: pipelines, outfalls, chimney stacks, and rivers. Together, these pathways contribute 85 percent of the Mediterranean's pollution. A two- tiered system of emission standards regulates the wide range of pollutants with vastly different toxicities. The most dangerous pollutants on the so-called "blacklist," which includes mercury, cadmium, used lubricating oils, and organophosphorus compounds will be prohibited from entering the Mediterranean, even in minute amounts.
Others considered less toxic and persistent are placed on a "gray list." A special permit will be required release them into the sea, which will take into account the capacity of the Mediterranean to destroy or dilute the pollutants.For example, quality standards or water used for swimming or growing shellfish will be the same all around the Mediterranean.
But treatment of sewage will have to be stricter where the amount of sewage is high. At next October's meeting of experts, the UNEP will propose three standards governing the quality of bathing water, shellfish, and the mercury level in seafood. Mr. Keckes believes the measures will probably take at least three years to adopt -- the time required by national governments to ratify the treaty.
One of the most controversial provisions says enforcement of the treaty will lie in the hands of each government. At regular meetings held every two years, the Mediterranean governments will have to report to each other about the measures taken, permits issued, and the level of pollution in their waters.
Although 15 of the 18 coastal states bordering the Mediterranean approved the final text of the treaty, Mr. Keckes and his UNEP colleagues fought a hard battle behind the scenes. Delegates from the poorer countries pointed out that many of the newest factories installed within the last five or six years in the south do not have adequate pollution control equipment. This is in contrast to those set up in France and Italy, which are regulated by a European Community directive set out in 1976. They feared that their governments would be committed by the treaty to purchasing expensive, sophisticated equipment from the north -- equipment they could ill afford. So provision for more technical aid from the richer north was worked into the treaty.
Behind these political wrangles was the very real threat that next year's program for the Mediterranean action plan would have to come to a halt within a few months for lack of money. In February, Peter Thacher, deputy executive director of UNEP claimed that only 35 percent of the total funds promised by 17 Mediterranean countries a year ago had been received. Of the $3.2 million, only