Axios, Nestos rivers bring toxic waste from neighboring states

THESSALONIKI – There is mounting concern in Greece over plans being considered in Sofia to divert the waters of the Nestos River to irrigate large areas in southern Bulgaria. Another major river in northern Greece, the Axios, is polluting the Thermaic Gulf with 500 tons of waste, according to the latest evaluations, every year, waste that includes toxic matter from factories in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). The problem with these two rivers, in combination with the need for flood control works on the Evros River, requiring cooperation with both Bulgaria and Turkey, and the joint exploitation with FYROM of the water of Lake Doirani, have raised the issue of activating «green diplomacy» on the management of cross-border water resources that are of crucial importance for Greece’s economy, as they supply the fertile valleys of Macedonia and Thrace, as well as unique wetlands protected by international conventions. At a meeting between Greek and Bulgarian experts recently held in Sofia on the administration of the Nestos water catchment area, as part of the European Union’s «Iron Curtain» program on cross-border water resources, the Bulgarians presented their government’s thoughts on diverting the Nestos to cultivate southern sections of the country. For the time being, such a project is not feasible, since it requires huge financial resources that Bulgaria simply does not have. But since it forms part of plans for the future, Greece should be concerned. «A large volume of the water that reaches Greece on a daily basis will no longer cross the border, drying up the plain of Drama and causing irreversible damage to the Nestos delta wetland,» warned Professor Yiannis Mylopoulos, of Thessaloniki University, and scientific director of the program. The existing bilateral agreement on Bulgaria’s obligation to allow 29 percent of the volume of the Nestos River’s water to cross into Greece appears not to solve the issue. «In practice, we are now getting 75 percent of the Nestos water from Bulgaria, because our northern neighbors are not able to exploit it. What happens when they are able to? Twenty-nine percent is in no way sufficient to meet the need for irrigation and for maintaining the ecoystem,» he added. In addition, when the Nestos is in flood, it brings down huge quantities of mineral waste and refuse from illegal dumping sites, turning the northern part of the Drama plain into a garbage dump. If this refuse creates «moderate» pollution, the same is not the case with the Axios River, which carries toxins from FYROM. Data from measurements by the Institute of Geological and Mining Research (IGME) are extremely worrying. According to IGME’s director Nikos Arvanitidis, measurements over the past two-and-a-half years in the waters of the Greek stretch of the Axios have shown that every year 500 tons of liquid waste cross the border, mainly from mining factories in the town of Veles, with high concentrations of toxic material such as lead and cadmium, that wind up in the Thermaic Gulf. «Toxic waste from FYROM is causing huge problems in the sea. So although we have a waste treatment plant to remove pollutants, dangerous waste is coming from our neighboring country and killing the sea,» explained Mylopoulos, who took part in a mission of Greek experts to FYROM where, along with colleagues from the Polytechnic School there, they examined the Axios issue and agreed there was a need for joint action. ‘Hydro-diplomacy’ Scientists’ vigilance and mobilization are not enough to guarantee the best and most mutually beneficial administration of cross-border water supplies. Planning and action are called for on an interstate level, based of course on experts’ analyses and conclusions, but aimed at protecting the joint exploitation of water through political agreements between the interested countries. The question of dealing with flooding on the Evros, for example, cannot be restricted to a purely technocratic level, as it touches on sensitive border issues that require political action, while the Traborema program, recently initiated to protect the Prespes Lakes, will not have the desired result if it is not accompanied by agreements on the part of Greece, Albania and FYROM to exploit that world-famous wetland. The management of cross-border water resources is an issue that one way or another concerns virtually every state on the planet, including Greece. «Hydro-diplomacy» is today an emerging issue in international relations. Fears that the wars of the future will be fought over water should not be dismissed. Of course a war between Greece and Bulgaria over the Nestos or Strymonas water might seem impossible, or even between Greece and Turkey over the Evros, but tension should not be ruled out if there are no interstate agreements on the management of this now-valuable commodity.

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