How clean are the seas once the tourists have gone home?

Blue flags wave over most of the country’s beaches to confirm the cleanliness of their waters. But how clean, really, are our seas, especially at the height of the tourist season? A typical example is that of the beach of Kouroutas near the town of Amaliada in the Peloponnese, which sports a blue flag but whose residents express severe doubts over the cleanliness of the water. In the area, there are two tomato-juicing plants and the wind covers the surface of the sea with a light crust wherein may be found an abundance of tomato seeds. Not quite 11 years have passed since Greek legislation – under pressure from the EU – was passed that stipulated hotels and companies should all have wastewater treatment units to prevent raw sewage from being dumped into the sea. Existing wastewater treatment plants can meet the needs of half of the population but it is not clear which of those on YPEHODE’s official list function satisfactorily. «We’re not in a position to know how many of these sewage treatment units conform sufficiently to environmental regulations, chiefly due to the weakness of the monitoring mechanism,» Andreas Andreadakis, a professor at the National Technical University of Athens, said. Inadequate maintenance and unspecialized staff are part of the problem. Inspections are carried out annually only in certain areas and usually, as far as hotel complexes are concerned, before the beginning of the tourist season. «Their proper operation is due to the conscientiousness of those responsible, rather than fear of inspections,» Andreadakis commented. The problem is chiefly to be met in the thousands of small and medium-sized hotels in Greece and to a lesser degree in large, well-organized complexes (though it is still not negligible). Hotels which commercially exploit their waterfronts have added incentives to insist on the proper functioning of the cleaning system. In most cases, however, sewage treatment lacks the necessary capital (for maintenance, replacement of filters, etc), as well as specialized staff. As often as not, an untrained migrant laborer is deemed sufficient. Areas with large numbers of tourists are a special case. Sewage treatment plants lack the necessary capacity, while wastewater units cannot keep pace with the growth in hotels. «Everyone shows an interest in installing cleaning units but they often forget that they need maintenance as well,» added Andreadakis. Rising volume At the same time, inspections and examination of water quality take place before the start of the tourist season, when sewage treatment units have to deal with lower volumes. «Nobody knows what happens when these areas are packed with tourists, since during these periods, the units are not inspected,» said Nikos Haralambidis, head of Greenpeace in Greece. As a result, water samples are more than satisfactory, with 99 percent of Greece’s seas meeting quality criteria laid down by the EU. But according to a new EU directive on measurements of marine pollution, permissible amounts of specific pollutants will be reduced to a quarter of today’s. This will lead to the implementation of a fuller monitoring system for the whole coastal zone.