Public Works Ministry renews plans to divert Acheloos River for water

In the government’s latest plans to divert the Acheloos River in Thessaly it hopes to provide water for the region’s towns instead of irrigating its vast plains. The Ministry of the Environment, Physical Planning and Public Works (YPEHODE) hopes to circumvent the objections of Council of State, the country’s highest court, by means of a legal of a loophole. Though the diversion project has met with opposition for decades, due to its massive size and consequences, the ministry hopes to wrap it up in the next three years. The two amendments that YPEHODE Minister Giorgos Siouflas presented Thursday will be incorporated into legislation for the land register, on which debate begins in Parliament next week. The first amendment will fill a gap in the legislation – the lack of a presidential decree defining the method of drafting water management plans for the provinces. It has a provision stipulating that by 2009 (the EU deadline for approval of the national water management plan) «it is permitted to draw water from a specific basin and to transfer water to another basin» in order to meet «the urgent water needs of cities and settlements.» YPEHODE will use the second amendment to submit and approve the management plan for the Acheloos and Pineio basins. The plan which Souflias has put back on the agenda concerns a partial diversion of the Acheloos (since a full diversion was categorically rejected in the past) of 600 million cubic meters of water a year. The water will be channeled to Thessaly, which is facing a serious water shortage and degradation of its water due to excessive depletion of its resources. The work will cost an additional 220 million euros; 500 million euros has already been spent on parts of the project. Souflias criticized the local authorities and inhabitants of Aitoloacarnania for acting out of «ignorance or parochialism,» environmental organizations for «ecological shortsightedness,» and the Council of State «for stubborness and incomprehensible insistence.» He promised Aitoloacarnania residents that the project would not affect their area and that it would not lead to any expansion of the arable land (about 15,000 hectares) in Thessaly. The grandiose notion of diverting the Acheloos was first raised by Professor Constantinos Kotsocostas of the National Technical University in 1925. The plans were made public again in the 1950s when Constantine Karamanlis was prime minister, and in the 1960s when George Papandreou was prime minister. In 1979, Constantine Mitsotakis, then minister of coordination, approved funds for a study of the diversion project, and in 1981 the New Democracy government announced an international competition for a feasibility study for the project. The PASOK government included the diversion in its 1983-87 five-year plan and the project was auctioned in 1988. Work began and was stopped three times by the Council of State (1994, 2000, 2005). The only thing that was lacking throughout that time was a serious attempt at rational water management in Thessaly. Amendments irk environmentalists The submission of the two amendments concerning the Acheloos diversion and the disparaging comments of the YPEDOHE minister have enraged environmental organizations. The organizations claim «it is not insufficient water but monumental mismanagement of water resources» that is at the heart of Thessaly’s environmental problem. Not only will the diversion of the Acheloos not solve the problem, they say, but it will make matters worse by giving the «false impression of an inexhaustible supply of water and encourage waste.» In a joint announcement, WWF Hellas, the Hellenic Ornithologial Society, and the Hellenic Society accused YPEHODE of trying to bypass justice, saying that «the laws are not subject to judicial control.» The environmentalists called on deputies «to vote against this amendment,» which they described as an «insult to democratic rule.»