New research project aims to make border rivers and lakes sources of unity rather than division between countries

Thessaloniki – A decade after the collapse of the so-called evil empire, Western Europeans remembered the Iron Curtain, not in order to raise ideological-political barriers, but to help achieve better cooperation among countries that just a few years back were at loggerheads. The name «Iron Curtain» was given to a European research program on bodies of water along or across the former dividing line between Eastern and Western Europe. Greece is involved in the program through the River Nestos. «The object of the research project is to promote cooperation among neighboring countries and to develop methods and tools to fully deal with problems in hydrological basins on borders,» Yiannis Mylopoulos, associate professor of hydraulics and environmental engineering at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, told Kathimerini. Mylopoulos is responsible for the program of cooperation with Bulgaria over the Nestos. For half a century, the duration of the Cold War, rivers and lakes on borders between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries were sources of friction rather than channels of peace for the peoples who lived from the same waters. One country would hold back water that another needed; toxic waste was discharged uncontrolled into rivers and lakes, and the lives of people in many areas were dependent on the disposition of the Eastern bloc. Now the scene is changing, and countries like Russia and Norway, Germany and the Czech Republic, the latter and Austria, Austria and Hungary, and Greece and Bulgaria are being asked to work together on a program for the shared use of border water. Other forms of intrastate European cooperation are in the pipeline. Greece has other reasons to participate in and promote such initiatives: 25 percent of its water is imported, as Professor Iakovos Ganoulis noted at a recent congress in Drama on managing intrastate hydrological basins. Major rivers such as the Nestos, Strymon, Axios and Aoos, and the Prespa and Doirani lakes, which are inextricably bound up with the economy of Macedonia and Thrace and the ecological balance of the area, stretch across Greece’s borders with Bulgaria, Turkey, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Albania. No intrastate agreements to regulate cooperation on their use and protection exist, except for the Nestos. But it was never implemented. «The issue of intrastate hydrological basins is above all political,» Ganoulis said. All the speakers at the Drama conference agreed. The experts emphasize the need to formulate a uniform policy on the system of managing water resources on borders, which would lead to the states concerned signing agreements for viable solutions. The issue is a serious one. The plain of central and eastern Macedonia and of the Evros River are irrigated by imported water. Hundreds of thousands of farming households, whole areas of vital crops, all depend entirely on the quality and quantity of water that comes from Bulgaria and FYROM. At present, the water comes into Greece unhindered, because the neighboring countries are not in a position to make use of it. But the question is what will happen in a few years time when those countries acquire the necessary infrastructure for agricultural development and can use larger amounts of water on their territory. «It is a serious issue, which can and must be tackled by agreements,» Mylopoulos said. Wars in the future will be about water, it is said. For people in the Balkans to fight over a commodity which they can share for the common good if they cooperate is a luxury. But already water-related complaints and suspicions exist. Who can forget those incidents in the early 1990s, when a PASOK deputy claimed in Parliament that people in FYROM were digging mines to steal water from Megali Prespa lake and channeling it to Ohrid, while Skopje accused Athens of draining Lake Doirani and taking the water to irrigate crops? There was also widespread popular suspicion in eastern Macedonia and Thrace that the Nestos was depositing radioactive waste, and in Thessaloniki that the Axios was carrying toxic substances from factories in Veles. All this, concluded the experts at the conference in Drama, could be tackled by means of agreements between the states concerned.