EU water management program could help Greece protect precious supply of its dwindling resource

Every March 22, observed since 1993 as World Water Day by the United Nations, a proverb of the native people of North America is recalled: «We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.» To that end, a European Union social directive (2000/60) is intended to help properly manage the Earth’s most precious resource through a framework for water policy in the EU. The directive turns on the idea that water is not a commercial product but rather an inheritance which must be protected. The directive seeks the recovery of costs related to water, such as infrastructure and services. Ideally, the EU would like to improve the quality and quantity of water in the continent by 2015 through national legislative efforts and cooperation among the societies that will stand the test of time. To get to this point, Greece must face the fact that its water management policies cannot be delayed any further. Problems have already cropped up in recent years. Consider the drought that lasted from 1987 to 1993, during which Athens had only 32 days of water left at one point and several of the driest islands were forced to wait for shipments of water to be transported there. There are also serious problems with brackish rivers and streams in the country as well as overirrigation on farms. (Some 85 percent of water resources go to this.) Poor countries with more serious problems may be far away on other continents, where 1.1 billion people have no secure access to drinkable water or where 2.5 billion people live in unhygienic conditions that force them to clash over available water. But that doesn’t mean Europe is off the hook. The increasing demand for water in Europe is putting serious pressure on water resources. Since 1955, the total consumption of water in Europe has shot up from 100 cubic kilometers per year to 660 cubic kilometers per year. This demand strains the quality of existing water and destroys ecosystems. Scientists are also increasingly worried about climate change, which could provoke extreme conditions such as floods or droughts by 2050. In Northern Europe, annual rainfall is expected to increase by 10 percent, whereas in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean it will drop by the same percent. In especially drought-sensitive areas such as the islands of the Mediterranean, annual rainfall could drop by between 50 and 70 percent. This may sound extreme, like a scenario of the distant future, since Greece has had considerable rainfall in the last few years. But this should not soothe policymakers. The country needs a national policy to protect its resources. Thirsty islands The list of islands which have serious water shortage problems is growing. So far, it includes Patmos, Arki, Leipsoi, Agathonisi, Nisyros, Aigiali, Donousa, Schinousa, Koufonissia, Irakleia, Symi, Folegandros, Kimolos, Thirasia, Anafi, Halki and Megisti. Transporting water to these islands is both costly and dangerous to the public health, since its transport is not well regulated, says Giorgos Tsakiris, a professor at the National Technical University in Athens and the president of the European Water Resources Association. «The whole system works without specifications and there isn’t the political will for its rationalization so we can have a reduction in expenses, better water quality and autonomy as regards water on whatever island this is necessary,» Tsakiris said. Efforts to hydrate the islands have been made in the past, such as the Ministry of Agriculture initiative to construct reservoirs and small dams, he added. «But there have also been failures,» Tsakiris continued. «When the average rainfall is 400 millimeters per year, the strategy of a country should not be on the construction of dams which hold a lot of water, such as the one on Leros which holds 800,000 cubic meters, in a place where the rainfall in 2003 (which was a record in the Aegean) was just 35,000 cubic centimeters of water.» Tsakiris also says other European countries are preparing for drought. Spain, for instance, is in the midst of its worst drought in 65 years. The river basins which are especially suffering from the extreme dry spell include those of the Ebro, Jucar and Tagus. The Spanish are also concerned about their ability to gather enough water to cool for use in nuclear reactors, a source of electrical energy. The drought situation has spurred Spain, France and Portugal, with the support of Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Malta, to take the matter to EU level. On March 9, during a recent conference involving the ministers of health, the member countries also asked the EU leadership to form a strategic plan on water resources. The initiative could help Greece, which continues to struggle with water resource management. According to the same Native American wisdom alluded to on World Water Day: «Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.»