Greece’s blue gold

Greece’s blue gold

March 22 marked World Water Day and the launch of the 2023 UN Water Conference in New York. Last week also marked one of the most important debates for the Greek legislature and the Mitsotakis government regarding transforming Greece’s water management.

Water is the biggest threat facing the 21st century. Water is linked to our world economy through climate, agriculture, energy and health. Water is the thread that binds all humanity. New definitions of economic governance, accountability, ethics and legitimacy require a new form of leadership that takes a systemic approach towards ensuring the human and national security of its citizens. Water security is climate security, is food security, is human and national security.

The key message is that water is fundamental to life and it will require a multi-stakeholder approach of government, business, the financial community and civil society, along with coordination between water, energy, agriculture, and health ministries. Water needs to be used as a tool for social, economic and political development. A dollar invested in water technologies can create an $8-$35 return depending on the region and technology, and, due to the multiplier effect, investing in water can raise GDP, on average, by some 3.7%. Investing in water affects every part of our economy, but, most importantly, ensures our human and national security.

Water is a fundamental human right. The human right to water was guaranteed by the 1948 Universal Declaration, the 1977 Mar del Plata Action Plan, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, Principle 4 of the 1992 Dublin Principles (ensuring water has an economic value but the human right to water was to be recognized first), Article 15 of the 2002 Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Committee, and finally, the 2010 United Nations Resolution recognizing “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right.”

This act of government affirming water as a human right can have an important impact on a nation’s laws and policies and development programs. Investing in basic clean water availability and sanitation infrastructure creates a multiplier effect, which significantly impacts a nation’s national security and economic stability and growth. With increased populations and greater demands on nations’ water supplies, improved water management is no longer a luxury. By recognizing this “right to water,” pressure is further put upon the international community to translate this right into legally binding agreements, which can support legal frameworks for water conflict resolution and which place the importance of water high on political agendas.

In Greece, the public sector is responsible for the country’s water management. The two main urban centers of Athens and Thessaloniki water are managed by EYDAP SA and EYATH SA, respectively. The public sector is the main stakeholder in these two water supply companies, which cover a total of 55% of the national population. The remaining water and sewerage utilities cover 45% of the rest of the population in towns and villages. Other large water suppliers in Greece include OAK AE on Crete and SYDLI in Ioannina. EYDAP and EYATH also operate and maintain treatment plants and work with smaller municipalities, while also managing large hydraulic projects such as dams and reservoirs. Greece currently maintains a public structure like many other European countries. However, in reality, its infrastructure looks similar to systems commonly observed in Africa and Latin American countries rather than European capitals. The water infrastructure of the smaller utilities is mostly dependent on European financing programs, which results in outsourcing to private actors, especially in the operation of sewage treatment plants.

Greece has a great opportunity to modernize its drinking water and sanitation system and consolidate its municipalities in smaller towns and villages. In this new blue and sustainable economy, Greece can create new revenue streams that will upgrade its offerings and can incorporate disruptive technologies that will help Greece leapfrog its economy and also create new jobs for water professionals. A more integrated management of its water systems, both on the mainland and islands, can take place.

But to do so will require: valuing water and pricing it properly so that the cost of the construction, operation and maintenance of water supply and treatment are provided for; eliminating inadequate water and energy subsidies that could cripple each other; implementing appropriate tariff structuring which is fair according to use but also provides low-cost water for those who cannot afford to pay; replacing inefficient and leaky pipes and open canals; investing in new technologies such as GIS, sensors, robotics, data monitoring and artificial intelligence technologies. In addition, the two large public water utilities, EYDAP and EYATH, which serve 55% of Greece’s population, can create new revenue streams by implementing disruptive technologies that are available on the global market and which can address electricity, heat, and mineral extraction. Wells and aquifers could be recharged through recycling wastewater rather than dumping untreated water back into the sea. Taking a circular approach, rainwater could also be collected and every drop could be managed through the digital water economy. In Greece 2.0, the health of Greece’s citizens are protected but so is the protection of its environment from further drought, desertification and ground water depletion. The UN estimates that 30% of Greece will be desert by 2030 if water resources are not managed properly.

The agricultural sector in Greece remains an important sector of economic activity and employment for Greece, with exports of agricultural products accounting for one third of total exports in Greece. Agriculture contributes 4.1% of GDP and is characterized by small farms and and low capital investment. About 64.2% of the total Greek land area is agricultural. In 2019, 11.6% of the workforce in Greece was employed in agriculture, bringing in $16 billion annually.

As the world continues to be challenged by warming of the planet, Greece too will continue to experience increased drought, loss of fertility of its soils, and erosion of its land. In August of 2021, some 247,000 acres of Greek forest was lost over a period of 11 days, adding to the great losses in Northern Evia a few years earlier. Besides the human tragedy and the economic activity, some 750,000 fruit-bearing trees, mostly olive, 3,000 animals and 4,000 beehives were lost. If these heatwaves continue, the Bank of Greece reports that by 2050, the mismanagement of water could result in Greece cumulatively losing $815 billion, or almost four times its GDP.

We know that Thessaly, the area known as the breadbasket of Greece, has lost some 13% of arable land. Temperatures have risen by 2 degrees Celsius there since 1990 and rainfall has diminished by 18%. Extreme weather has caused the flooding of crops but also the washing away of soils. The aquifers are overdrawn by some 3 billon tons of water as they have been so over-pumped and tables are so low that many farmers have abandoned their plots. There is no central water management and some 33,000 wells have collectively drawn down the groundwater, while also causing the land to subside in certain areas. The cost of electricity is still too high and water pumped from wells through local fields gets lost through a network of leaky pipes and ditches. Pumping or delivering this water is affected by energy costs. Furthermore, pesticides are used, which use a lot of water and energy and contaminate the water source. And Greece’s main exports include cotton, alfalfa and maize, which are heavy on energy, water and pesticide use. These products should be reconsidered in such an arid landscape and more drought-resistant crops grown.

The water infrastructure of the smaller utilities is mostly dependent on European financing programs, which results in outsourcing to private actors, especially in the operation of sewage treatment plants

In Karditsa, near the Pindos Mountains, local authorities are making more use of surface water than groundwater. Dams have been built to make use of a network of canals and channels. However, these distribution networks are antiquated and open water is lost due to evaporation, and leaks, amounting to a 35% water loss. Fifty million tons of water is extracted from the damn but only 18 million tons is delivered by the time it reaches the fields. Fertile soils are further lost as heavy machinery breaks down organic matter. Decomposed or decayed plants provide nutrients and stabilize the soil structure and help retain the water. Leaving the fields bare in winter leads to the chemical and physical breakdown of soil – erosion and desertification follow. Fields must be protected, properly cultivated with crop rotation, and vegetation during winter months, such as legumes which add nitrogen to the soil, should be common practice. There should be a coordinated education program for farmers and an investment in precision technology, such as drip irrigation, whereby water is delivered directly to the plant rather than flooding the entire field. Greece has lost 2.2 million acres of good soil since 1980.

Greece is not going to compete with larger economies such as the US or Germany and does not need heavy machinery and large farms. Conventional farming is all about extraction practices leading to the overexploitation of land, resulting in depleted soils and heavy use of fertilizers. Greece’s changing climate and topography cannot sustain this sort of farming. Greece should use its competitive advantage and market itself as an organic producer of crops and focus on regenerative agriculture, as soil is its key ingredient. The renewal cycle of a forest feeds all the organic materials in the soil, making it more productive for food production, retaining more water while restoring the ecosystem and forests in a circular system. By using nature-based solutions and restoring degraded ecosystems, floodplains are protected and wetlands can improve water resources while capturing twice the amount of carbon as forests.

The use of drones to plant crops and trees; IOT and machine learning systems to provide insight and forecasting of food production, precipitation and evaporation levels; the use of greenhouses to produce food with less land and water; the use of vertical farming that can produce 100 times more food than conventional farming per square foot with lower water usage, no pesticides, and low carbon emissions, and which can be located in urban areas that can offset the heat in cities such as Athens in the summer.

Water intensive crops such as alfalfa and cotton, which use a lot of energy, water and pesticides should be re-evaluated. The water footprint of Greece needs to be considered in the context of crops imported and exported. The water footprint of a crop is the water embedded in production of that crop. For example, a ton of grain requires 1,000 cubic meters of water. If that ton of grain is imported, then that 1,000 cubic meters of water per ton of grain can be saved. This spared water can be mobilized towards more productive uses, such as high-value agricultural crops for supporting ecosystems or crops that do not require as much water. And keep in mind that energy costs are also linked to the production of these crops. So as energy and water resources become scarce, virtual water can serve as a tool in alleviating pressures on Greece’s water and energy supplies.

Taking it one step further, Greece can spearhead a regional program – for example, Southern European countries could trade with Northern European countries in order to better leverage competitive advantages and better coordinate crops that require less water and energy and then trading them with Northern neighbours, who may have ample supplies of water. This trade of virtual water requires some sort of green accounting, where we take a systemic approach to the water-energy-food trade.

Investors are increasingly aware that the 21st century economy will be shaped by powerful environmental and governances (ESG) factors such as climate change, population growth, energy demands and a decline in fresh water. Besides the EU Recovery Fund, capital for Greece’s future water management can be provided by public entities, commercial and development banks, institutional and private investors and blended finance. Bond finance (such as sustainability awareness, hydro, or environmental impact bonds), revolving funds, risk financing, credit guarantees, or output-based aid can facilitate the flow of capital for water-related investments with clearly defined revenue streams.

Water needs to be recognized as an economic, social and environmental good, where the full costs of water management and improved water services are acknowledged and taken into account. There needs to be transparency and affordability in the way that adequately priced tariffs cover all infrastructure costs but also subsidize the poor who cannot pay. There needs to be institutional clarity regarding allocation, water rights, regulatory frameworks and management responsibilities. In this way, capital can be made available at all levels, whether it be issuing local bonds, revolving loan programs or micro-credit in order to assure that all citizens have the basic minimum water supply. Private-public partnerships can be successful but there needs to be strong political commitments, clear definitions of roles, and stakeholder involvement at all levels. In this way, we can achieve a water-secure, rather than a water-bankrupt world.

“Till taught by pain, men know not water’s worth.”

– Lord Byron

Stella Thomas is managing director of the Global Water Fund, advising governments globally on national water strategies, and partnering with entrepreneurs and the investment community to invest in the blue economy through the implementation of disruptive water technologies. She is a Greek American living between Zurich and Thessaloniki.

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