EU clashes with ministry over Acheloos

The ongoing conflict over the diversion of the Acheloos River in Aitoloacarnania in western Greece is now in its final stages, as environmental groups, local organizations and the residents of Mesohora, Trikala, have acquired a new ally, in addition to the Council of State, that could just swing the balance in their favor. The European Union has left open the possibility that it could take action. Its opponent is Greece’s Environment and Public Works Ministry, along with cotton farmers in Thessaly, who have been promised that the diversion will turn their dried-up plain into a paradise on Earth. The ministry has boosted its arsenal with legal and scientific arguments in a bid to ward off yet another referral, which would be the seventh on the Acheloos, to the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court. In the national water resources management plan presented last week, the Acheloos’s diversion is no longer being described as a necessity, as it has been in the past, but as a given, expected to begin operating within the next three or four years. It has been 40 years since the project was first touted. Since then much has changed – first and foremost, the climatic conditions. The orientation of the Greek economy has also been altered, the emphasis shifting away from agriculture. The scale of human intervention in nature is also different – these days we no longer cut away mountains to build highways; protecting the environment is now an important factor in the design of any project. The conservation and protection of ecosystems is a priority in European and national policies – not without good reason. These are the arguments being raised by opponents of the diversion. Experts and politicians – many of them from the two major political parties – describe the diversion as being an outdated approach to public works and dangerous to Aitoloacarnania’s ecosystems and even pointless, since the cultivation of cotton does not seem to have any future. What is illogical is that these arguments cannot be used to block the project, as any intervention can only be on the basis of legal irregularities, and that is what the ministry appears to be depending on. What could upset the balance is the involvement of the European Union which, after a series of allegations, has been quietly investigating the issue. Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, in his two most recent visits to Greece, held discreet meetings with representatives of environmental organizations and groups opposed to the diversion. He wanted to find out to what extent the project violated European environmental legislation in practice (the environmental effects studies, which in some cases are tailor-made to suit the purposes of the Environment Ministry, are not sufficient proof). Environment and Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias is aware of that fact and is preparing his defense. The diversion of a river is not contrary to European legislation, as he correctly pointed out a few days ago. In response to a question from Eurodeputy Dimitris Papadimoulis a few months ago, Dimas said that transporting water from one administrative area to another has to be based on «achieving efficient use of water, managing demand… retrieving cost, the principle of ‘the polluter pays’ and a transparent decision-making framework.» He also criticized current farming practices, emphasizing that these should be aimed at conserving natural resources, not exhausting them. What remains to be shown is whether the ministry’s intentions are sincere or whether all the new arguments (regarding supplying water to towns in Thessaly, saving the Pineios River, restoring underground water reserves, and changing farming practices) are simply excuses. The problem is that if that is so, the effects will be difficult to reverse, not only in Aitoloacarnania.

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