The rivers and lakes of Greece are beautiful, if you ignore the pollution, illegal building, rubble and garbage dumps near some of the most important ones – those the Ramsar Convention declared exceptionally important wetlands 28 years ago. With one of the Ramsar wetlands dry and the rest riddled with problems, the government – under threat of stiff European Union penalties – is trying to compensate for years of indifference and omissions. Though Environment Minister Vasso Papandreou presented the situation in almost idyllic terms a few days ago, just as her predecessor Costas Laliotis did regularly every year, there is no cause for complacency. Many years of indifference to the fate of these areas has led to their serious deterioration, while Greece’s refusal for 28 years to put the areas under total protection has aroused the ire of the EU, which has funded studies on the areas. Now that most of the 10 Ramsar sites are in a disgraceful state, the Environment Ministry (YPEHODE) has announced that the sites are to be put under full state protection in a last-minute attempt to save both the sites and the country’s reputation. This has nothing to do with any sudden ecological sensitivity; the EU wants its money back. The 10 areas that were included under the Ramsar Convention in 1974 are the Evros Delta, Lake Kerkini, Mesolongi Lagoon, the Axios-Loudia-Aliakmonas Delta, lakes Koroneia-Volvi, Vistonida and Ismarida, the Nestos Delta, and the Amvrakikos, Kopychi-Strofilia and Prespes wetlands. All 10 areas were included on the list that Papandreou announced last week as due to be put under full protection soon. So what state are they actually in? For a start, Lake Koroneia no longer exists. Many years ago it was declared a Natura site of special environmental significance and was included in the Ramsar Convention, but, in the absence of any management body, nearby farmers drew water from it at will, while anyone who had any garbage dumped it into the lake. Now, even if it rains and the lake refills, the flora and fauna of the wetland cannot easily re-establish themselves, as nothing lives there anymore. In the Axios Delta, things are in bad shape. Construction companies illegally remove sand from the area for use as building materials, deepening the swamp and turning the wetland into a lake. Apart from the alleged building of illegal roads for farmers’ use and illegal construction, there is also an unofficial dump in the wetland where people dispose of garbage. Lake Vistonida also shows signs of deterioration as farmland begins to encroach on the wetland. An adjacent lagoon was filled with rubble in the past. Lake Kerkini is slightly better, but there is still a problem with the water level, which rises and falls according to the amount of silt deposited by the Aliakmonas River. The forest on its shores has also diminished considerably. As for the Kotychio Lagoon, our fame has reached the EU where someone has lodged a complaint about illegal activities and the dumping that has clogged the lagoon. Mesolongi Lagoon is also beset by illegal building, although the chief problem there is salinity. Irrigation has drained the watercourses and the sea now enters the lagoon unhindered. If the Acheloos River is diverted, it will deposit even less fresh water and the lagoon will soon be filled with seawater. The only wetland that is in good shape is that of Prespes, due to a tri-national park that has been set up there and which is overseen by a non-governmental organization. It is ironic that money from LIFE, an EU funding agency, and the Third Community Support Framework has funded approximately 75 special environmental studies on ecologically vulnerable areas – including the wetlands – which have been completed but were shelved when they should have been implemented at once. The study on the Dadia Forest, for example, which is also included on the recent YPEHODE list, has been ready and pending since 1994. The outcome is that the EU has been warning us since early this year that if we have not implemented the studies and put the sites concerned under full state protection, it will demand back the money it provided for that purpose. Hence the minister’s haste, the recent list of sites and our sudden ecological sensitivity.