The End of Mediterranean Disparity

by Thymio Papayannis

Thymio Papayannis (Greek, born 1934) is an architect, planner and environmentalist. A successful professional architect and planner, he has dedicated most of his activities during the past 30 years to the conservation of the natural and cultural heritage and to environmental and sustainability issues.

He has been one of the two founders of WWF Greece (and its president from 1996 to 2004 and again from 2005-2006) and of the Society for the Protection of Prespa (and its president since 2004) and has contributed to the establishment of the Greek Biotope – Wetland Centre. He has also been a member of the Board of WWF International (for two terms) and the Tour du Valat Foundation in the Camargue (since the early 1990s). In 2009 WWF International named him Member of Honour.

Among his other activities are the establishment in 1992 and coordination of MedWet, a regional initiative of the Ramsar Convention, for which he was elected Honorary Member of the Mediterranean Wetlands Committee. He is also joint coordinator of the IUCN Delos initiative on sacred natural sites and of the Ramsar Culture Network, while directing Med-INA (the Mediterranean Institute for Nature and Anthropos).

In 2010 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate for his environmental work by the Athens Agricultural University.

He has also been deeply involved with the ecological work of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the integrated management of the Mt. Athos World Heritage Site.

In 2012 he was given the Ramsar Award in Recognition of Achievement.

He has written more than 250 articles, book chapters and books on architecture and planning, nature conservation and the environment, as well as on sustainability.

Deep social and economic disparity has characterized the countries around the Mediterranean basin for a lengthy period of time. Those at the north of the basin, all members of the European Union, benefit from high incomes, decent social services, high educational standards, and rather stable democratic systems, but they face demographic problems with low fertility rates and aging populations. At the other extreme, in North Africa and the Middle East—with the exception of Israel and partly Turkey—populations are still rising rapidly, incomes are low, and political instability reigns. Recently, however, a number of significant trends and changes are appearing in the Mediterranean, which seem at first glance unrelated.

Key Trends and Changes

Strong political unrest in the Muslim countries of the basin has led to toppling of the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya and violent demonstrations in Syria. It appears that in all these countries there are growing demands for improved living conditions and for greater participation of local societies in governance.

In parallel, a serious financial crisis has seized Greece and Portugal and is menacing Spain and Italy. At the symptom level, the crisis is due to excessive national debt, resulting from high public-sector deficits and the inability of governments to borrow further funds. However, the root causes are low productivity, weak governments, uncontrolled public and private consumption, and corruption in almost all sectors.

Measures to alleviate the problem imposed by the IMF, the European Union, and the European Bank have averted national default up to now, but the actions taken to decrease government spending and drastically increase taxation will prolong a spiral of depression and rising unemployment, until the root problem has been solved. The gravity of the ensuing financial and social problems poses threats to the stability of this part of the Mediterranean.

But in spite of these dire developments in the north of the Mediterranean, illegal immigration from Africa and Asia has been exploding, mainly toward Italy and Greece and to a lesser degree to Spain, Malta, and Cyprus. Greece, with a population of around 11 million, has a large number of illegal immigrants—perhaps a million strong—mostly unemployed and impoverished, conditions that fuel uncontrolled criminality. Most of the illegal immigrants are motivated not by political reasons and persecution, but by the desire to improve their income and living conditions.

In addition to the immigration, there is the environmental challenge. Serious drought has been affecting many parts of the Mediterranean basin and especially the Middle East. Cyprus in particular is suffering, with water resources dwindling and rationing for domestic freshwater becoming necessary. Desalination has been considered as a partial solution, but it is expensive and energyconsuming.

Throughout the island, there are visible impacts of climatic change, desertification phenomena, and shrinking vegetation.

Agriculture is suffering, with irrigation-dependent cultivation being abandoned as government policies seem to favor tourism facilities (including golf courses). Similar phenomena are appearing in other parts of the Middle East and are predicted for the south of Greece.

Throughout the basin, resources are being exploited unsustainably. Fish catches in the Mediterranean are dropping, and marine desertification has been expanding in many areas. Soil resources are being overexploited by intensive agriculture and polluted by agrochemicals, and thus they are losing their productivity. Natural areas, especially coastal, are disappearing as spreading human land uses— mainly urbanization and tourism—and the construction of major infrastructure modify them dramatically. As a result, the biodiversity of the Mediterranean eco-region is dwindling.

Projecting Future Developments

Immigration flows and environmental change will continue to affect the region in the next forty years. First of all, it is clear now that effective measures to mitigate climate change will not be taken in time, and the Mediterranean will be highly affected. Sea-level rise will affect coastal areas. Measures to protect the areas, adapt to climate change, and combat its effects will be combined with urbanization and tourism investments and will result in a complete artificialization of most of the Mediterranean coasts. This in turn will degrade the attraction of the coastal areas and will undermine the tourism industry. Distortion of the water cycle and desertification will become realities that will negatively affect the use of natural resources throughout the basin.

The most striking developments, though, will happen at the income level. The economies of the European Union countries in the Mediterranean will have to accept a dramatic drop in per capita income over the years to come. As a result, a large part of their population will end up living near the poverty level. This will lead to social and political unrest and to intense governmental efforts to accelerate economic growth. It is safe to predict that this will cause major environmental damage. It is less likely, however, that these attempts will have lasting positive impacts on income; thus resignation and low consumption levels may prevail.

But this sad state of affairs will not stop the migration flows from the southern rim of the basin. The new democratic regimes in North Africa and the Middle East are creating expectations among their citizens for a better quality of life, which they will not be able to satisfy. The northern Mediterranean countries will retain their attractiveness for immigrants from the south. In fact, the immigrants will be better suited to cope with the impoverished conditions and the scarcity of natural resources in the European parts of the basin.

Conditions there will be similar to those of today’s North Africa. So—after a period of intense internal conflict—immigration will become tacitly accepted, and in 2052 the European countries of the Mediterranean will have nonnative-European majorities. A merging of practices and cultures will result.

This will necessitate new systems of governance. The Mediterranean has been dominated for millennia by empires— Macedonian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman—under which different communities lived in the same places, maintaining to a large extent their social structure, culture, and religion. Historic cities such as Constantinople, Alexandria, Thessaloniki, and Aleppo were truly cosmopolitan and played key roles in the birth of civilization.

Thus, in the middle of our century, the Mediterranean may rediscover the arts of coexistence, this time in a democratic framework.

The fusion of peoples and cultures that will result may have positive side effects—namely, the smoother acceptance of the loss of affluence, less consumption than in the north, and a wiser use of natural resources—especially water and space—and energy. The people from the south and east may not be today as affluent or educated as the Europeans; they have, however, much better understanding of natural limitations, since they depend on them for their current subsistence. This will be their great contribution to the new integrated Mediterranean.

Four decades may not be sufficient time. It is probable, however, that by 2052 a new Mediterranean civilization will be visible, vibrant, and creative, with the disparity of the past between the south and the north rapidly disappearing.