What rowers didn’t see

Distracted by the choppy waters of the artificial rowing lake, competitors and officials at last month’s test events at Schinias probably did not notice the more glaring lapses: the failure of the Environment Ministry and Athens 2004, the organizing committee, to deliver on their promise to overhaul the area and persuade people that Schinias was the perfect choice for a rowing center. What the strong winds blew in was simply the final straw of broken promises made about Schinias. Apart from building an Olympic Rowing Center, the authorities promised to «protect, restore and highlight» the wetland and coastal forest. For the moment, at least, the notorious «restoration» has taken the form of an artificial lake which, as it emerged, makes waves. Not surprisingly, since the area is known for its strong winds, particularly in August. That is why the beach there has become so popular with windsurfers. Environmental and other organizations had given plenty of warnings; all went unheeded. Now a solution is being sought in the form of a windbreak of 10,000 trees. Otherwise, work appears to be just starting, particularly with the coastal forest, a vital part of the ecosystem and included in the restoration plans. It is one of Greece’s three umbrella pine (Pinus pinea) forests, of which there are only three more, in Italy, and none elsewhere in Europe. The Schinias forest is important because it has a coastline on one side and a wetland on the other, and should be safeguarded at all costs. The authorities do not appear to agree, as is evident from a short walk around the area. Along the coast, the forest resembles little more than a garbage dump, just as it has for years. Plastic bags full of household waste, dumped by «European» sunbathers among dead branches and weeds are perfect kindling for a fire. There are plenty of hastily scrawled signs pleading with people not to dump refuse, but not a dumpster in sight. Anyone can drive through the forest to the beach, where there are several illegally constructed restaurants. No one knows if and how well the fire detection and extinguishing system – which was supposed to be installed at the beginning of this past summer – is functioning. Worst of all, many of the pine trees near the coastline have been found scorched, but not by fire. The trees are dying, some environmental groups suspect, because of groundwater salination. These groups had from the outset expressed their fears of a lowering of the water table as reserves were pumped out for the construction work. According to the authorities, not only was this not so, but the work was supposed to improve the balance between the sea and the water table. Yet the phenomenon of dessicated trees, and particularly those right next to the shore, could be an indication of what has really happened. The rest of the promises are also still on the drawing board. According to WWF Hellas, the project has been touted as an environmental improvement project, but has in fact degraded the area and none of the restoration projects has been carried out. A promise to remove the abandoned navy base, polluted by toxins, has not been fulfilled. Birds have yet to appear at the artificial lakes, which were supposed to function as mini-habitats. As for the Makaraia Spring canal, which according to ministerial decisions was to be untouched, it now sports barbed wire and has been diverted with rocks. Nevertheless, the rowing center is still presented as an innovative environmental project. The most bizarre aspect is that during Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom’s visit in January, the Environment and Public Works Ministry issued a list of birds supposedly observed in the area since the lake was built. The list was identical to that drawn up by the Hellenic Ornithological Association before construction began. So these birds have always been in the area.