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Thin Ice Over the Regional Seas

The following interview with Stjepan Keckes,

Director of UNEP's Regional Seas Program, was conducted by Peter Hulm exclusively for AMBIO.

Stjepan Keckes was born in Yugoslavia, the son of a Hungarian country doctor. He received his Ph D in Biology at the University of Zagreb. A marine scientist with a special passion for the Mediterranean, Dr Keckes has been Deputy Director of the Ruder Boskovic Institute in Zagreb and ran its Marine Laboratory at Rovinj on the Adriatic coast, not far from Trieste, before becoming Director of the Regional Seas Program. His address: United Nations Environment Program, Palais des Nations, 1211 Geneva 10, SwItzerland.

Ambio: Is the Regional Seas Program still a race against time?

Keckes: I would rather say we are skating on very thin ice: safety depends on your speed. If you stop, the ice breaks. So you cannot stop. That is the problem.

We are racing against time to a certain extent because we are trying to remedy a situation which is already here, not just facing us in the future. Coastal zones and coastal waters are already in bad shape in many parts of the world. We have to deal with an existing problem, not just design a system which would avoid it.

In the Mediterranean, for example, the deterioration is far advanced. In other regions -- 'take the Pacific -- we cannot talk about damage to the environment in the same way. But by learning from our experience with the Mediterranean, our first Program, we try to help countries understand and avoid problems which are already there for governments in the Mediterranean.

It is not only a truism but also a hard fact of life that you hardly ever learn from other people's experience because you just do not believe the same can happen to you. So we have to expect that mistakes are going to be made in the future in all these regions.

Ambio: Has the Regional Seas approach been justified?

Keckes: Well, I think that the results themselves are the best proof. Over the very short period of a few years we have succeeded in mobilizing more than 120 states to participate in the Program. You know very well how difficult it is to get them to agree to something and to put aside their political differences. But they are cooperating.

We succeeded in achieving this in the Mediterranean in spite of a war that was going on between some countries. We were able to go ahead with the Program in the Persian/Arabian Gulf region in spite of the problems besetting that area. In the Caribbean we are successfully bringing together countries like the United States, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Mexico.

That is the best proof that these countries find something of interest for them in the Regional Seas Program.

Ambio: The Portmann report singles out two aspects of the Program as weaknesses: first, that national institutions in many countries are not always up to your standards scientifically and second, that the Program has to lead a kind of hand-to-mouth existence because of its reliance, like the rest of UNEP, on voluntary contributions. What is your reaction?

Keckes: Portmann himself comes from a developed region where you could say science was born, where science has existed for hundreds of years. So probably he is a little too hard on the institutions and experts we are dealing with in the developing countries.

I would not be so hard on them. I come from a developing country. I have seen with my own eyes that you can start from scratch and build up the scientific capability of developing countries.

My point is that you don't have to wait until the infrastructure is well-developed to use it. You have to make the infrastructure grow through the Program. You can't learn how to drive if you don't have a car.

Obviously at the beginning this infrastructure is very weak and therefore the results are meager. But the Program itself provides an excellent motivation for the scientists, technicians and governments to build on this foundation. It is a weakness, sure, that we don't have the same infrastructure in other regions that we found available in the Mediterranean. But I think that through the Program the infrastructure can be created faster than it would be in a vacuum.

Basically what we are trying to do through the Regional Programs is to assist countries so that they can solve their own problems. Only when you are able to solve your national problems can you hope to solve the regional ones. Our philosophy is to make use of the national infrastructure. We are not trying to create supranational institutions. So strengthening the national infrastructure is a major aspect of our Program in all the regions'a critical aspect.

Atnhio: And the other problem -- your financial support from governments?

Keckes: Nobody has enough money. If we were given 10 million for a Program we would still feel that more money could and should be spent on it. We try to work within a realistic financial framework. We have to have a high degree of flexibility since we don't know, really, how much money we are going to have the next year.

But experience shows we have never had to stop a Program because there was no money, although we have had to slow down in some cases. Our job is to ensure that no Program is so starved that it dies.

Ambio: The voluntary system can work?

Keckes: Oh, sure. A few years ago people didn't believe we could collect money in the Mediterranean. Even the governments themselves were skeptical. But now government contributions are running at the level of $3.5 million. UNEP has succeeded in disengaging itself financially from the Mediterranean Program. That is, we spend only about ,000 dollars a year on it. If this is not a success, then nothing is.

In the Persian/Arabian Gulf there was never a real financial problem. But take a poorer region like the Caribbean-- here countries like Belize and St Vincent are paying, even though four or five thousand dollars a year is a lot of money for them. They are showing their clear commitment.

Ambio: And from here where do you go over the next few years? Is it a question of bringing up the other Programs to the level of the Mediterranean?

Keckes: If you look at the map, you can see the Regional Seas Program covers practically the whole globe, except for regions such as the Baltic or the North Sea, where there are other mechanisms and other organizations.

Our Program is now nearly global, and we are trying to ensure that this leads to a situation where we can assess the problems on a global scale through a unified methodological approach.

The Mediterranean is a semi-enclosed sea, so obviously you cannot compare its needs with those of the Pacific, which consists of thousands of islands, or of the Caribbean, or of the Pacific Coast of Latin America. Their needs are different and their problems are different.

So I would not say the task is to bring them up to the level of the Mediterranean. Each of these Programs is developing in a different way.

But when we are assessing, say, the problem of mercury pollution in any region we can do it in the same way, using the same techniques.

We have used the Mediterranean to learn, and it has taught us a lot. There was hardly any big international organization that could have brought together Arab countries and Israel to sign a treaty as we did for the Mediterranean in 1976 -- before the Camp David accords. With the exception of Albania[1], the Mediterranean treaty has been ratified by every single Mediterranean country the first agreement ever ratified by them all. It seemed to us that if we could succeed in the Mediterranean we could succeed practically anywhere. And we are seeing similar developments in the Caribbean, the Pacific, the Gulf region, and West and East Africa.

You can ask yourself what is the common problem facing countries stretching from Senegal to Namibia? When the same problem crops up in every country, even if only on a local scale, then it becomes a common problem. All the countries of the region benefit by looking for a common solution.

Ambio Vol. 12 No. 1, 1983, pp 12-13

[1] This took place in 1990. See the details in Regional Reports and Studies No. 135


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