Bassam Bkeily says he has spent three-quarters of his life underwater, exploring the Mediterranean Sea along the Lebanese coast and watching what he described as the “slow and painful death” of his great love.
The 56-year-old professional diver and instructor has campaigned for two decades to raise awareness about the destruction facing the sea’s flora and fauna.
The sea off the Lebanese coast contains dangerously high levels of toxic pollutants, particularly heavy metals and pesticides, according to a 1997 Greenpeace study.
The major ingredients of the potent cocktail of contaminants responsible for the marine pollution and habitat destruction are industrial effluents, sewage and coastal dumpsites.
Because it is semi-closed, the Mediterranean has limited water exchange with the open seas and is therefore very sensitive to the build-up of pollutants. On average, it takes about 80 years for the water in the Mediterranean to be completely renewed.
“I have been campaigning on my own for 20 years through the media, by consulting members of parliament and political parties,” Bkeily told Aljazeera.net. “I feel like I’m yelling into a bucket because nobody is listening … The sea is forgotten, there is no one to look after it.”
Bkeily has little faith in non-governmental organisations like Greenpeace and is bitter about what he views as a lack of government commitment.
“Successive environment ministers have made public statements which made you wonder if they even knew how to swim let alone understood the problems of the sea,” he said.
“Every night we hear people engaged in the illegal practice of fishing with explosives like dynamite,” he said. “The explosions are so loud that sometimes we feel like we’re back in the war.
"Why aren’t government officials doing something about this practice that is killing not only the fish but is also destroying their breeding grounds?” he asked.
And as for NGOs, “it’s not enough to just shine a spotlight on an issue and ignite a debate. They must follow the issue through to its completion. Perhaps the only hope is if a United Nations body would protect the sea. I don’t have confidence in anyone else.”
Lack of political will
But Greenpeace campaigner Wael Hmaidan says his group is doing its utmost to keep pressuring not only the Lebanese government, but also the governments of all of the coastal states along the Mediterranean to save the sea.
“The main reason behind the pollution in the Mediterranean is the lack of national and international political will to take concrete steps to prevent it,” he said in an interview at his Beirut office. “It seems that the countries have a tacit consensus to watch the Mediterranean Sea die.”
Twenty-one countries are party to the 1976 Barcelona Convention, which seeks to prevent pollution in the Mediterranean Sea.
Volunteers do their part ...
The convention has eight protocols aimed at the elimination of pollution caused by dumping from ships and aircraft, from the toxic waste trade, from land-based sources and from exploitation of the continental shelf and the seabed.
For Mediterranean governments to be legally bound to implement legislation to meet the convention’s aims, the protocols must each be signed by a specified number of countries.
Twenty-seven years after the convention’s inception, only two protocols have entered into force.
“These countries which have been party to the convention must prove that their signatures are more than a political show, and have a real-life correspondence,” Hmaidan said.
“The politicians have to see that time is ticking away for the Mediterranean Sea."
Lebanon lags behind
According to Greenpeace, not only has Lebanon failed to sign the new protocols and amendments added after 1976, but it also has yet to implement the already ratified original text.
The Lebanese Environment Ministry could not be reached for comment on the issue.
“All it takes is political will and a bit of funding,” Hmaidan said. “The lack of funding cannot even be used as an excuse because there are plenty of funds from various donor parties, such as the World Bank and the Euro-Med partnership agreement,” he added.
“Some important steps can be taken that don’t even require substantial funds, such as implementing a toxins use and release inventory for industry by the Ministry of Environment and making it publicly available.”
... scouring the deep for litter
Toxins use and release inventories list the chemicals used by industries, their quantities and their dispersion into the environment.
According to Hmaidan, this measure alone could curb industrial pollution by at least 20%, a figure that is based on past experience in several countries from Europe to the United States that revealed that a direct correlation exists between public access to information and environmental protection.
“Identifying marine pollutants amounts to very little unless the source of the pollution can be identified,” he said.
“To introduce toxins use and release inventories there must be an access to information law that allows the public to get a hold of that information. Then, the Ministry of Environment can force industries to submit inventories that are made public,” Hmaidan explained.
Corporations in control
“The problem is that the Lebanese government has neither the will nor the power to control these polluters. Corporations are the real people in power in this country, and whoever has the money controls the decisions.”
But Hmaidan is hopeful that with sustained pressure, the government will eventually introduce the legislation.
Bkeily, the diver, is less optimistic.
“We don’t need new laws, they should implement the ones we’ve already got,” he said, “because if we are to enter the Byzantine maze that is the Lebanese government and request that they create new laws, the issue will be on hold forever.”
So where does Bkeily’s hope lie, given that he has little faith in either the government or organised environmental campaigns?
“With decent citizens,” he said. “With the people who pick up rubbish as they walk along the beach, or with those who see someone littering and then shame the person into stopping. These people are saints, but the rest are sinners.”
Despite his cynicism and bitterness, Bkeily said he would continue his fight to save the sea. “The more my heart bleeds, the more I will fight,” he said, “but I’m weary.”