It is a green oasis, located just 8 kilometers east of densely populated Iraklio, capital of the island of Crete. The point where the Karteros meets the sea – a sandy beach starting at the mouth of the river shares the same name – is home to dozens of flora and fauna and a stopover for thousands of migratory birds every year.
Given its proximity to the city, one would expect that the authorities would have taken extra measures to protect this wetland. Sadly it has deteriorated in recent years.
“The wetland which you see today is only part of what it once was,” Kaloust Paragamian, a WWF Greece wetlands expert, told Kathimerini in a recent interview.
“Interestingly, the authorities had launched a plan for its protection a few decades ago. The stretches of land next to the beach were expropriated, but over the years you could see buildings popping up illegally, even right on the river mouth,” Paragamian said.
Even golf courses were built along the river, which naturally flooded during heavy rainfall. The dunes are packed with caravans and over the years a slum has sprung up next to the beach.
“None of the illegal constructions has been demolished. Last year we filed a suit against all those responsible,” Paragamian said.
The Karterou wetland is not the only one under threat on the island. Two more near Iraklio, the Almyros River wetland and the mouth of the River Aposelemi, have also been damaged by illegal activity and official negligence.
A brackish river, the Almyros flows into the sea about 10 kilometers west of Iraklio. “It is a wetland of great importance but it has been systematically undermined since the late 1960s. About 50 percent of its current area is covered in waste,” Paragamian said of the area.
About 21 kilometers east of Iraklio, near the village of Analipsi, lies the mouth of Aposelemi. “This area too is a classic example of an anything-goes attitude,” the WWF expert said.
“Part of the river was recently filled in by the construction team in charge of the Aposelemi dam to create a bank for water pipes. We referred the issue to a prosecutor, but our efforts proved fruitless,” he said.
As part of its initiative to survey Aegean wetlands, the WWF has counted 196 on Crete, of which 108 are classified as natural.
“Overall the situation on the island is challenging. The majority of Crete’s wetlands – particularly those on the island’s northern coast – have been systematically degraded over the past 50 years. Only 39 of the wetlands were found by WWF monitors to be in good shape,” Paragamian said.
He says that state officials have become more responsive to the threats, but they are seriously compromised by limited staff. There are no guards or security personnel, so there is little in the form of preventive action.
“It’s very hard to track down someone who has dumped waste on a wetland. But even in cases where there have been witnesses to such incidents and we have pressed charges, the perpetrators have usually escaped unpunished,” Paragamian said.
He says that a suspect sued in 2008 appeared in court in 2012. His appeal has not yet been considered. Meanwhile, Paragamian adds, the suspect is free to deposit waste at the site.
Illegal construction on the island’s wetlands is also a big problem.
In 2013, says Paragamian, a campaign was launched to knock down 111 unlicensed buildings along Crete’s coastline – many of which were built on wetlands. After a taverna was demolished, local officials stepped in and stopped the procedure on the grounds that knocking down seaside buildings in the runup to the tourist season would damage Greece’s image abroad. “In the end, the whole process came to a halt,” Paragamian said.
“How many illegal buildings were demolished in the winter? None.”