Mediterranean nations pledge restraints on coastal development

Signatories to the Barcelona Convention, an international agreement to protect the sea, agree to ban development within 100 meters of the coastline.

José Fernández Pérez attended last week's meeting of signatories to the Barcelona Convention – an international agreement to protect the Mediterranean – with a single demand. Warning that "old models of managing the coastline were exhausted," the director of coasts for Spain's Environmental Ministry implored fellow officials from Mediterranean countries for "radical change."

On paper, at least, he got it.

Ever since its 21 signatory nations agreed in 1976 to a set of protocols designed to reduce pollution in the Mediterranean, the Barcelona Convention, which holds biennial meetings, has spearheaded a variety of important environmental initiatives. But this year's reunion in Almería, Spain, the group's 15th, has gone further than most. Participants, including environment ministers from Italy, Tunisia, Israel, Croatia, and Montenegro, agreed that along all 29,000 miles of Mediterranean shore, no construction would be permitted on the 100 meters (about 328 feet) of land nearest the water.

The new protocol, Mr. Fernández Pérez told a press conference, would require administrations to create "a new way of looking at the sea." His boss is similarly pleased with the agreement. "This is a historic protocol," says Cristina Narbona, Spain's environment minister, "and it gives us a very powerful structure with which to combat the negative effects of overdevelopment."

The agreement, which was formally signed on Monday in Madrid, was not the meeting's only significant outcome. Participants also issued the Almería Declaration, which requires all member states to develop a list of threatened marine species by 2011, to establish a "broad and coherent network" of protected coastal areas by 2012, and to promote renewable energies in the region.

But it is the shoreline construction ban that will probably have the most immediate impact. Nearly 40 percent of the Mediterranean coast already is cluttered with highways and buildings, and experts believe that figure could climb to 50 percent in the next 20 years.

The initiative comes at an important moment, as experts warn that the rising sea levels caused by global warming will soon threaten human habitats. "This is the first time that the Barcelona Convention has responded to climate change," says Banu Dokmecibasi, Greenpeace Mediterranean's oceans campaign director. "Governments have tried to ignore the issue for years, but more public and media awareness have pressured them to respond."

Spain has already begun efforts to clear the outermost 100 meters of its coastline – both Mediterranean and Atlantic – of human-made elements. In 2007, the government razed some 655 illegal structures near the water, and its newly debuted "Strategy for Coastal Sustainability" calls for the removal of thousands more.

The most difficult steps are still to come, however. "I know from our experience in Spain that compliance is the problem," warns the environment minister, Ms. Narbona. "Every single one of the provisions agreed to in Almería already exists in Spanish law. There just hasn't been sufficient will or awareness to enforce them." To address that challenge, the Almería protocol creates a committee to ensure that the convention's provisions are carried out.

From her office in Istanbul, Ms. Dokmecibasi still worries that even that step won't be enough. "This kind of regional agreement is important because it helps create more binding instruments," she says. "But it's up to the national governments to convert these agreements into national law and enforce them. We have the same 100-meter law in Turkey, but people are still building on our coastline."

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