Tough water management decree seeks reform in a land where bureaucracy has enabled resource’s waste for years

A draft presidential decree placing most of the responsibility for water management, protection and replacement upon the shoulders of regional officials – a decree that will soon to be made law – is a step toward fulfilling Greece’s commitment to abide by the European Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EU), established in 2000. The decree comes after many delays in implementing the directive, which Greece adopted in 2003 but dawdled in its enactment. The ministries of the Environment, Physical Planning and Public Works as well as those of Agriculture and Development have been sparring over the delegation of authority and ignoring the substance of the issue. Meanwhile, public administration and local authorities have been moving at their customary slow pace. The delays led Greece to be called before the European Court of Justice at the end of 2005, which resulted in the first committees being set up, their members appointed and briefed and relevant reports commissioned. Since the directive was incorporated into Greek law (3199/03), after long negotiations and several delays, little has been done. Law 3199/03 is yet another case of hasty action taken to avoid EU fines, resulting in spasmodic action and inactive committees. The new decree, which Kathimerini saw this week, will help provide a more complete legislative framework for water management after the partial changes introduced in 2003. Already, two of the deadlines set in the directive have expired: * By December 22, 2004, the Central Water Service was supposed to have completed «an analysis of the characteristics of each river basin district, a review of the impact of human activity on the water, an economic analysis of water use and a register of areas requiring special protection.» * By December 22, 2006, there should be regional programs in place for monitoring water quality. The new decree provides for this, along with instructing regional authorities on how to test the water appropriately. The authorities had blamed many of the delays on the fact that approval was still pending from the Council of State, although this week sources said that the Council had given the presidential decree draft the green light a few days ago. As for the authorities set up early last year to administer the country’s water resources, these have not yet received funding or expert personnel, while the Central Water Service remains understaffed. According to Professor Giorgos Zalidis of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, bringing Greek legislation in line with the directive meant changing the administrative structure concerning water management, shifting it to regional authorities. This change has gone the way of many of Greece’s civil services – it does not have the funds, staffing or experience to perform. «In Greece, a newly established service needs at least two years to get off the ground and begin its work,» said Zalidis. «Decentralization is the right choice, since the central administration is not able to implement the directive, but it takes time.» Another problem is that water regions were set as they existed previously, that is according to the administrative regions they lie in. However, water basins are not always identical to administrative regions; the Aliakmonas or Strymonas river basins, for example, are split between two separate services. The enactment of Law 3199 requires a number of joint ministerial decrees and presidential decrees. Only three of the required 10 ministerial decrees have been issued. «The entire Common Agricultural Policy is affected by the directive,» said Zalidis. «The age of the cotton farms has ended, we just haven’t realized it yet. When 50 percent of the water used for irrigation is wasted and we do nothing about it, then we will have to pay for it.» According to the directive, each member state must ensure a «balance between abstraction and recharge of ground water, ensure that water pricing policies provide adequate incentives for users to use water resources efficiently and that the various economic sectors contribute to the recovery of the costs of water services.» Someone has to tell farmers about this. At the moment the cost of irrigation from the Strymonas River is estimated at -5-15 per 1,000 square meters annually. Naturally this is way above the current price charged. The directive also sets as a condition something that is unknown in Greece – negotiation. Once water resources in a region are recorded, the local community is obliged to agree on their use. «Do we want to save Lake Koroneia or have another 15 years of crop yields on local farms?» is a typical question which local communities must answer, taking all evidence into account, says Zalidis.