Flood prevention is better, and cheaper, than cure

Winter flooding has left destruction in its wake throughout Greece and in other parts of Europe, and in many places plans for reconstruction and flood protection works are under way. The deluges of the past weeks were extreme phenomena, but several causes are cited as exacerbating the floods. These include the blocking of natural watercourses by roads and buildings, the erosion of bare soil left on mountainsides after forest fires, as well as changes in farming practices. Not much can be done about built-over streambeds, but the destruction of upland forests is more easily remedied, although not always in an organized way. In Greece, the Agriculture Ministry’s forestry service has been doing largely unrecognized work to maintain the country’s watercourses and catchment areas since the 1930s. But in recent years, progress has been stalled due to a lack of funding and altered priorities. Giorgos Douros, of the ministry’s Secretariat for Forests and the Natural Environment, said that many of the ministry’s powers have been transferred to other authorities such as municipalities, which often had other priorities. «Work was done for decades, chiefly in Macedonia and Thrace, to maintain the correct slope of watercourses in order to avert erosion and to keep the water clear of rocks, soil and other debris,» he said. Trees were planted, which helped soil absorb water, reducing the amount left to flow downhill and also helping prevent erosion. «Much of this work has never really been made public and is not obvious as it is in mountainous areas,» said Douros, although he said that not a great deal had been done in the Peloponnese, where much of this year’s flooding occurred, apart from around Kalavryta. «Preventing damage costs far less than repairing it after the fact,» he said. Flooding is exacerbated by forest fires and clearance, usually for illegal construction, and the blocking of natural watercourses. In a local newspaper, Topikos Typos, published in Anavyssos, which lies below the slopes of the Hymettus range on Attica’s Saronic coastline that sees massive flooding every year, Theodoros D. Dalakoglou cites several examples. «The Ari-Agiasmothi stream disgorges double the amount of water that it used to because nearly half the forests on the hill have been burnt, and instead of being reforested, the area has been divided into plots of land for construction… The second cause of flooding is the walls built… on the Anavyssos plain, at right angles to the runoff flow. These areas are the first to flood… but they also divert the water, affecting other people’s land. The third cause is… the coastal highway, where not enough bridges were built to allow the water to flow into the sea,» he said. In other countries, there has been some success in encouraging farmers to see the benefits of setting aside some of their own land on high ground for reforestation. Farm measures In Wales’s hilly borderland, a small group of beef and sheep farmers have over the past five years changed the way they farm in order to reduce the rate at which water flows off their land. According to a report by Chris Baines in last month’s issue of the British magazine Country Living, the farmers fenced off the steepest slopes and planted them with native broadleaf woodland species of trees. «Where the trees were planted, the water disappeared into the ground very quickly,» said farmer Roger Jukes. «When the animals graze, their feet compact the soil, making it impervious to rain. In the old days, rain would have soaked into the ground, where it traveled slowly and gradually to streams and rivers. Now it flows over the surface, off the farm and down(hill)… within hours instead of days; this sudden surge of water is what causes flash flooding,» he added. Owners of agricultural land in Greece can apply to local forestry authorities to be included in a European Union program designed to protect the soil from erosion by planting appropriate vegetation. The program provides funds for the plants, irrigation and other necessary work, on the proviso that land use is not altered for 20 years. This could be a solution for many owners of agricultural land, not only to protect the soil but to create a better local environment and thereby add to the value of the land.