Answers to 10 questions about the project

Why is the cultivation of cotton so important for Thessaly? It means money, easy money. In 1979, cotton fields covered 130,000 hectares in Greece, in 1989 they had spread to cover 270,000. And in 1995, the area had reached a total 440,000 hectares of cotton fields – about 50 percent of all irrigated land and one-third of all farmed land. This growth, dependent on European Union subsidies, has led to a web of special interests and political favors. The world price for cotton is not more than 0.18-0.30 euros (60-70 drachmas) per kilo and Greek cotton producers often have been paid as much as four times that amount as a result of the subsidies. Problems, including demonstrations by cotton farmers, began when the quantity produced was higher than that for which the EU paid subsidies. If Greece produces only 2 percent of the world’s cotton crop, clearly the EU has no desire for it to continue, for various reasons. Soon Greek cotton – which is no longer top quality – will have to face the market without the protection of subsidies and then nothing will be the same again in Thessaly. Why doesn’t Thessaly have any money? More cotton means more money. However, for more cotton to grow, it needs more and more water. As a result, about 30,000 wells have been drilled on the Thessaly Plain; farmers are pumping water up from a depth of 350 meters, compared to an average 35 meters in 1975. In some areas, the wells are as much as 800 meters deep. Thessaly’s underground water contains large concentrations of nitrates due to over-fertilization. Meanwhile, the irrigation system is far from efficient; 40-50 percent of the water is wasted. Even today, when Thessaly’s water supplies are at risk of disappearing altogether (according to EU Directive 2060 on water) and should be heavily priced, it pours out of gigantic hoses spilling all over the road, or is allowed to evaporate. Even according to the most conservative estimates, Thessaly’s water is being used up at a rate of 1,000-1,500 million cubic meters a year, according to figures from Thessaly University. Is the Acheloos diversion the solution? First of all, there has to be a decision as to whether cotton is the solution to farming on the Thessaly Plain. To all accounts, it is not, because cotton cannot remain on the market without subsidies. So there needs to be a decision on what to replace it with, and how much water would be needed. According to scientists, the quantity of the Acheloos River water has not been measured. Even worse, no irrigation network has been designed for it, nor has it been decided just how the water is to be made use of. «The water will simply be diverted into the Pineios River and the farmers will divert it into their own irrigation pipes at will,» said Giorgos Politis, a lawyer specializing in zoning and environment issues and who has been studying the Acheloos diversion for 20 years. Locals’ views What is the view of those who will be deprived of the Acheloos water, or at least part of it? Residents of Aitoloacarnania rose up in protest as soon as the project was announced; their demonstrations led to a change in favor of a smaller-scale diversion that will allow 600 million cubic meters of water to flow into Thessaly, half of that in the original plan. «Thessaly should take care of its own needs and not make demands that waste water that doesn’t belong to it,» said the protesters. The Coalition of Aitoloacarnania Organizations, whichis against the diversion has commissioned a survey to evaluate the effects of the project. Carried out in 2004 by ENVIPLAN – G.T. Tsekouras and Associates with the participation of 18 scientists from Athens Agricultural University, headed by Associate Professor Leonidas Louloudis, and the ECOPLAN Economic Survey Bureau, it evaluated the project’s environmental and social cost. A poor prefecture, Aitoloacarnania (with one of the lowest GDP per capita in the country), is having to sacrifice itself for a richer area. Moreover, huge national resources (the EU has not agreed to fund the project) are being tied up for the sake of just one region. What is the environmental cost? According to the survey, the environmental cost to Aitoloacarnania and the Aitoliko and Mesolongi lagoons will be considerable. Naturally, reducing the water supply to a river can only have a negative effect on all areas it flows through. Already salt water has entered the Acheloos estuary, several kilometers upstream. This will only increase over time, creating problems for irrigation and the entire ecosystem. Aitoloacarnania’s wetlands will clearly be affected, forcing many species to either migrate or disappear. The microclimate around the project will change and the landscape will be considerably spoiled. Even the sources of the Acheloos are likely to produce less water. The Acheloos will be used to supply the Pineios, one of the most polluted rivers in Europe, a receptacle for agricultural effluent (pesticides and fertilizers) and waste from dairy and other factories. What is the actual cost of the diversion? No one knows exactly, because in the 24 years since the project was designed, much has changed, particularly the cost. Criticism of the project has often resulted in things being done, if not actually secretly, at least without much publicity. According to recent announcements from the Environment and Public Works Ministry, the project has already cost more than 500 million euros – the Mesohora Dam, the Sykia Dam and part of a tunnel (12.5 kilometers out of a total 17.5) – and another 220 million have been budgeted to complete it. Naturally these figures do not include the irrigation works, expected to cost as much as the actual diversion itself. What is the Public Power Corporation’s view. The PPC ought to be against the project, if only on purely economic and technical grounds, and it originally was. However, as it is not a private company but state-owned, it has gradually changed its tune. Its original objection was based on the fact that the energy efficiency of the hydroelectic dams on the Acheloos would be reduced. The total energy production of the Acheloos would be reduced by 4 percent. The PPC has invested 400 million euros in Mesohora – a «ghost factory» that could have been operating since 2001 is still waiting for the waters of the Acheloos, losing 25 million euros a year. It was expected to start operating in 2009. In any case, this specific unit would have been operating independently of the diversion. What is to be the fate of the people of Mesohora, the village that will be inundated by the diversion of the river? They do not know. They have been told to remain in the part of the village that is to remain above the water level, then they were told to leave, then they heard they would receive compensation. They have been waiting for years. Mesohora is the main village in the region, on the banks of the Acheloos, with a post office, ATEbank b ranch and about 200 permanent inhabitants in winter. In summer, the population is boosted by the arrival of livestock breeders who come up from their winter pastures. Giorgos Hondros, who for 20 years has been the locals’ representative, says that some people «mostly those who live elsewhere but who have inherited land here» prefer to be paid compensation. Others want to stay on their land. «We believe that we will win,» he says, «even though we are only a small village. We have become a thorn in the PPC’s side.» Why are the politicians persisting with it? The fact that the decision to divert the Acheloos was announced by Andreas Papandreou back in 1983 at a commemoration event to mark the anniversary of the 1910 farmers’ uprising at Kileler indicates the political significance of the decision. In Thessaly over the past two decades, the project has assumed mythical dimensions and is touted as the solution to all its problems. Politicians of all hues, particularly during visits to Thessaly, ensure they always praise the project. Recently, current Environment and Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias appears to see its completion as a challenge. After so many years of promises, any politician who dares to ask people to conserve water and to speak in favor of more efficient water governance as an alternative to the diversion, would need more than just political courage. Since the Council of State has often called a halt to the work, why is it continuing? Simply because the politicians want it to, they find ways to move ahead, or at least to appear to be. The project has been heard in court on six occasions, and four times it has been stalled by the Council of State. Yet each time a loophole has been left open. In order to bypass the Council of State, Souflias recently passed amendments regarding approval of environmental conditions for the Sykia Dam as part of a law on the land register, enabling the ratification of a tender on the Sykia Dam, which is expected to be completed in about six or seven years.

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