Group monitors Greek wetlands

The spread of avian flu to Greece’s next-door neighbor, Turkey, where at least 15 people have contracted the disease, has naturally focused attention on the habitats of migratory birds, particularly wetlands near Greece’s eastern border which are among habitats in Greece designated for protection by the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. At a Ramsar conference held in Uganda in November 2005, a resolution was passed on the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) and its consequences for wetland and waterbird conservation. The resolution warned that attempts to eliminate the disease in wild bird populations through lethal responses such as culling were «not feasible and could exacerbate the problem by causing further dispersion of infected birds.» It underlined, among other things, the importance of «developing and implementing national contingency or action plans related to the potential risk of disease transmission… partnerships to support the development of long-term funding for monitoring schemes… and the sharing of information including practical advice.» MedWet, an international non-governmental organization founded in 1991 to encourage collaboration among Mediterranean countries in protecting wetlands, has been extremely active in many of these areas. Formally recognized as a regional initiative by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 2002, it comprises 25 Mediterranean countries, specialized wetland centers and international environmental organizations. One of its current projects is the development of an inventory of wetland ecosystems. Four Mediterranean-based scientific organizations, including the Thessaloniki-based Greek Biotope/Wetland Center (EKBY), are collaborating with Estonia-based Tartu University to develop satellite remote sensing tools to allow wetland managers and users of the information to gather a great deal of data in a cost-effective way. These tools will be used first in Cyprus and Serbia as part of the project to map the location and basic features of wetland ecosystems, including information on their cultural and socioeconomic values. Satellite images will serve to locate wetlands and show seasonal variations. Prespa Lakes A major recent achievement in which MedWet is involved is a program on an integrated approach to culture and nature in the Prespa Lakes Basin. This area, shared by Albania, Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, has a rich cultural and natural heritage and landscapes of unique beauty. The program established the Prespa Center for Nature and Anthropos (PCNA) to undertake research, action and communication on the interface between human activities and the natural environment. From its headquarters in a traditional building in the village of Lemos in Greek Prespa, it will initially carry out research on land use and habitation patterns in Prespa during the 19th and 20th centuries, develop a Web-based information management platform, and research the cultural heritage of Prespa and a strategy for its conservation. It will also be involved in the conservation of traditional fishing methods and boat construction, as well as the study and promotion of local products in Prespa gastronomy. Some of these activities have already started and the program will be fully operational by the end of 2005. Wetland management One of the major problems in managing Greece’s wetland sites, and its protected areas in general, is the difficulty in getting management agencies off and running. «All of the Ramsar sites in Greece have management boards (whose chairman is appointed by the Environment and Public Works Ministry and the board includes local authorities as well as scientific excerpts, members of technical chambers, among others) but for the past two to three years they have been non-functional,» MedWet’s coordinator Spyros Kouvelis told Kathimerini English Edition. «Protection of these wetlands also affects other activities, and unfortunately there are those who take advantage of this vacuum,» he said. «Moreover, the lack of initiative means that European Union funds which could be used to maintain these valuable ecosystems are not fully exploited.» The government has provided MedWet with support in the form of over half of the funding for the coordination unit and the use of the Villa Kazouli, its premises in Athens until 2008, but Kouvelis feels the whole issue of wetland management needs to be given a higher priority on the political agenda «That goes for all protected areas in Greece, not just wetlands,» he added. MedWet provides technical support for the rehabilitation of wetlands (such as Lake Koroneia, which suffered a major ecological disaster that left thousands of birds dead). MedWet is also playing a role in trying to link the European Union frameworks on water protection with national policies on wetlands in Mediterranean countries. «MedWet is trying to promote a good understanding of what wetlands are like and how we need to protect them, also taking into account what the EU has to say about it, so as to avoid a duplication of efforts in future,» said MedWet communications officer Sofia Spirou. Mediterranean wetlands, typically made up of river deltas, lagoons and temporary marshes, are valuable natural resources, necessary for clean water, flood protection, seashore stabilization, fisheries and agriculture. Wetlands are often the only places where many plants and animals are found. As many Mediterranean wetlands have been lost in the past 100 years, those remaining are even more valuable. MedWet Coordinator Spyros Kouvelis will be speaking on the organization’s work on Monday, January 16, 7.30 p.m., at the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature, 20 Nikis, central Athens. MedWet Coordination Unit, Villa Kazouli, Kifissias & 1 Gr. Lambraki, 145 61 Kifissia, Greece Tel. 210.808.9270, fax 210.808.9274, e-mail [email protected].

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