NEWS

Natural watercourse going under tons of cement

As if the relentless spread of urban blight had not already reached desperate proportions, along comes the State and decides to implement a plan that will wipe out the Pikrodafni stream that rises on Mt. Hymettus and winds its way down a nine-kilometer course through the eastern Athens suburbs of Ilioupolis, Aghios Demetrios (Brahami), Palaio Faliron and Alimos to empty into the Saronic Gulf. The stream, which doesn’t even dry up in summer, is a lifeline for the city due to the dense vegetation along its banks in the form of pine and eucalyptus trees, bushes and reeds, and because it refreshes the atmosphere by creating a cool microclimate. The stream and its banks, contrasting with the surrounding heavily built-up areas, are a refuge for birds (considerable populations and over 16 species), frogs, tortoises and hedgehogs. By a ministerial decree (9173/ 1642) it was declared an area of especial aesthetic value. Outdated methods However, instead of providing the necessary environmental protection, a year and a half ago the prefecture (on the initiative of the state water company, EYDAP, and with the approval of the Public Works and Environment Ministry) began to cement over the bed of the stream and its banks, lining them with stone, and to divert its course in accordance with outdated scientific and technological methods that have all but been abandoned everywhere else. EYDAP said the purpose of the construction is flood protection, improved safety, the protection of the banks and to limit pollution. Irrespective of the original intentions, the project, as it stands, has had precisely the opposite effects. There is now an even greater risk of flooding as the speed and force of the water is far greater through the narrower cemented course than it is through the natural watercourse where the soil absorbs water and reduces its volume. Meanwhile, the stream, as every natural ecosystem, finds an equilibrium with the other forces of nature. For example, the natural meandering of the watercourse regulates the flow of water and creates attractive landscapes, which are destined to disappear as the projected watercourse will cut a straight swath through the landscape. Reaction from locals The pollution is worse now where there is no soil or gravel to filter the toxic elements from the water, which in those sections now settle on the cement, creating the strong odor also noticeable in other sealed riverbeds such as the Kifissos and Ilissos. Fortunately for the environment, residents’ committees in all four affected municipalities have been set up to make a collective effort to save the Pikrodafni. These committees insist that, apart from the above-mentioned effects, the project will destroy the entire local ecosystem. The water table will drop, leading to the destruction of vegetation along the banks. Any trees that survive will need to be watered. The only thing that will flourish along its banks in the future will be apartment houses, given that the stream’s redirected course will make way for construction. What nature has taken thousands of years to create will be destroyed within a few months. We must not forget that this unique natural environment has only been loaned to us by future generations, said Dr. Ioannis Thanos, who has been active in trying to save the stream. What they are trying to make is not a stream but a pipeline, added Manos Theodorakopoulos, organizer of the Inter-Municipal Initiative (IMI). Higher authorities The IMI has already taken recourse to the European Commission, since funding for the project was included in the Community Support Framework. Residents of Palaio Faliron and Alimos have gone to the Council of State. On October 16, a temporary order was issued to halt work on the stream and sent to the authorities. Nevertheless, work continued until Monday, October 22, when residents intervened. Unfortunately, local government authorities bear a great deal of responsibility for the project. With the exception of Palaio Faliron (where the decision was unanimous against the project), the other municipalities support a project that has been called into question by an increasing number of residents, and the prefecture of Attica is doing the actual work. The Pikrodafni stream needed a few small-scale protection works and improvements to the natural environment, including a clean-up operation. According to the Inter-Municipal Initiative, comprehensive studies have been done by experts at the National Technical University of Athens, Athens Agricultural University and researchers at the Polytechnic University of Munich. German researchers in fact have pointed to Pikrodafni as one of the seven areas in Athens that, if cared for, could contribute to a reversal of environmental destruction. The IMI also charges that the original environmental survey for the Public Works Ministry’ s relevant department was rejected by the ministry’s leadership. Low-key intervention The State seems to have made a mistake from the outset. Twenty years ago in Europe and the USA, cementing over water sources was the usual practice, but in the last few years this has changed along with a heightened interest in protecting the environment. Along the Rhine in Germany, for example, where the banks were cemented over for years in order to increase the speed of the water – and that of the riverboats – the concrete banks began to crack after flooding. In the USA, major projects are under way to re-expose the natural beds of rivers and streams and attempts are being made to restore their original courses. The concept is the basic premise of the European Center for the Restoration of Rivers (ECRR), founded in 1995 with the participation of 55 organizations from 22 European countries, among them the Inter-Municipal Initiative that hopes the Pikrodafni stream in Ilioupolis will be the subject of the first river restoration project in Greece. Theodoros Kousouris, director of the Institute for Inland Waters at the National Center for Marine Research is in agreement. We believe that the aims of the project under way along the entire length of the Pikrodafni stream have not taken into consideration the environmental use of streams, he said. It is known today that in large-scale technological projects, and anywhere that natural watercourses are covered in concrete, the natural course of the water is destroyed. The use of these materials changes the natural speed and holding capacity of a watercourse. It is clear that using concrete, destroying the natural course and replacing it with a straight course – an artificial watercourse – whether open or covered, leads to irreversible and serious damage to the flora and fauna, water table, microclimate, natural landscape, geomorphology and other valuable and rare components of the natural environment.