THROUGHOUT much of the year, the trees along the central promenade of Tunis's Avenue Bourguiba are filled with tens of thousands of brown sparrows, so loud during much of the day that passers-by on the busy street have to shout to be heard above the din.
"In Europe they would have already got rid of them as a public nuisance, but here we not only leave them be, but we go to the expense of cleaning up after them each night," says Hachmi Kennou, director of Tunisia's National Sanitation Office. "When it comes to the environment, we don't feel we have any lessons to learn from the north."
Mr. Kennou speaks with a smile, but his words betray a grudge often heard on the southern rim of the Mediterranean: that when it comes to the Sea's environment, it is the north that is the bigger polluter, while the south is portrayed as doing little or nothing about the problem.
"It's very popular to point a finger at the south, but in the western Mediterranean the biggest polluters are Italy, France, and Spain," says Amel Benzarti, director of international cooperation in Tunisia's Environment Ministry. "They are responsible for 80 percent of the urban and industrial pollution."
Yet as important as it is that the north do more to address its own environmental problems, Ms. Benzarti says, the Mediterranean's salvation can only come through closer cooperation - on stopping pollution, and on such broader issues as development and population growth.
The Mediterranean, which has cradled many of the world's greatest civilizations and carried traders and migrants for millennia, is in fact a nearly closed body of water with only the eight-mile-wide Strait of Gibraltar for an outlet. Most of the cities on its rim still dump untreated sewage into its azure blue waters; rivers, especially those in the industrialized north, carry tons of toxins of all sorts into the sea; and more than a third of all petroleum transported by sea passes through the Mediterran ean, resulting in more than 500,000 tons of crude oil pollution annually.
"More than 17 catastrophes the size of the Exxon Valdez occur in silence each year in the Mediterranean," Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi told the United Nations General Assembly last November. On land, he added, desertification "threatens no less than 90 percent of the Mahgreb countries' surface."
The Mediterranean is actually a paradigm of the world's unbalanced North-South divide, with a highly industrialized consumer society on one shore facing an underdeveloped region with a booming population on the other. As Mohammed Ennabli, Tunisia's minister of environment noted recently, "Where is sustainable development when over-industrialization is located on one side, and over-population on the other?" Overarching needs
The case of Algeria, whose population will have multiplied five-fold between 1950 and 2025, to 52 million, is often cited as a Mediterranean example of unmanageable population growth. With critical housing and infrastructure needs topping the social agenda, the environment often takes a back seat.
Tunisia, however, has worked for decades to cut its annual population growth to just over 2 percent. "Tunisia is the laboratory country of the Mediterranean," says Bernard Brusset, an environmental expert with the European Community's Mediterranean Affairs Administration. "They have both the will and a strategy for setting a certain example."
As enlightened as the country's environmental program is, it also makes good economic sense, Mr. Brusset adds, since Tunisia suffers a natural water shortage and because tourism provides about 30 percent of the country's revenue and employment.
Tunisia is the only Mediterranean country to have equipped 80 percent of its coast - and 100 percent of tourist zones - with sewage treatment facilities, its officials claim. The country invested $140 million in waste-water treatment between 1987 and 1991, and $200 million has been earmarked through 1996.
One key step was to create a national authority to push foot-dragging municipalities to pursue water treatment projects by promising them funds. "The traditional mentality we often confronted considered that it was understandable to pay to receive water, electricity," Kennou says, "but to pay to take it away and treat it? There was a reaction." Public criticism
The government has faced public criticism for giving low-cost credit to companies paying to hook into the new infrastructure. But Benzarti responds that "The ... problem is partly our responsibility because we encouraged companies to come here.
"In the future," she adds, "we aren't going to fall prey to the illusion of no-cost development. Companies are going to have to play their part from the beginning." This year Tunisia began requiring environmental impact reports on new development.
In addition to its own money, Tunisia can tap the $625 million the European Community has slated for environmental projects in the south Mediterranean over five years, plus programs with individual European countries. Germany, which sends 600,000 tourists a year to Tunisia, provides funding, as does Sweden.
An EC beach cleanup program, known as the Blue Flag and modeled in Tunisia as the Blue Hand, after the symbol of safe beaches has been touted as one of the most successful environmental cleanup programs in the world. In Islamic countries the hand is a symbol of protection.
"The sea is under heavy pressure, all of these countries [in the south] will face serious water management problems within 15 years, and the key to the situation will be making average people aware of the problems and the solutions," says the EC's Brusset. "We won't get far by criticizing the north or the south, but by approaching the problems with the spirit of a club."