Athens heat problem: Overlapping authorities are big obstacle to solution

In the summer of 2003, the hottest on record since 1757, temperatures rose to 45 degrees Celsius and thousands of people died in France and Italy. In 2005, summer temperatures in Greece were 8 degrees Celsius above average. In Cyprus, measures have just been taken to reduce water consumption down to 30 percent. According to experts, these trends are just a taste of what is to come. At a recent conference held by the Hellenic Society for the Environment and Culture titled «Heat Waves: The New Major Threat for Greece,» results of a survey on an urban microclimate showed that heat waves even slightly longer than those of last summer would cause dozens or even hundreds of deaths within densely populated districts. Carried out in the summer of 2007 in the innercity district of Psyrri, the survey found that in 90 percent of measurements, the maximum air temperature was over 32 degrees Celsius (90 Fahrenheit). The lack of greenery, the use of conventional building materials and the lack of urban planning all contributed to a deterioration of the urban environment and rising temperatures. Within a specific microclimate, increasing the number of trees, creating green oases linking existing green areas with archaeological sites, installing green roofs and using reflective material on the exterior of buildings reduced average temperatures by 2 percent. Speaking on behalf of the Municipality of Athens, Panos Efstathiou, head of the city’s organization for dealing with daily problems, said planting more trees outside existing parks was not as easy as it sounded. «Certainly every mayor wants to plant more trees… but in Athens this is a challenge… Unfortunately Athens doesn’t have (proper) sidewalks, and over just a short distance, from one wall to another, one can cross land owned by six different organizations. Ownership is one of the biggest problems in Athens. The other is that of violations by different services. The Public Power Corporation digs a trench in a road without asking anyone, then closes it up, badly, and a week later someone comes along to lay fiberoptic cables, or gas pipes. «The current municipal administration has gathered all these services together, to see just where we are. We no longer allow services to begin work unless they first inform the city administration so that we can let the local people know that either the water or the power will be cut off for so many days, for example, or so that the sidewalk will not be destroyed. We need what is referred to abroad as ‘interoperability.’ Greeks have never been able to coordinate with each other, but we will, because we have set up this organization,» said Efstathiou. «Sidewalks are very important, they need to be wider in order to have trees planted, but tell that to the transport organizations who want extra lanes, to the taxi drivers who would go on strike, and what about the demonstrations that shut off streets at the drop of a hat? Each demonstration costs Athens between 50,000 and 300,000 euros for cleaning up afterward, repositioning overturned dumpsters, fixing broken ones or buying new ones and getting new streetlamps.» European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, the first speaker at the conference, also warned that dealing with the effects of rising temperatures would be an extremely difficult task. «In such extreme conditions we will be testing the limits of national crisis management systems,» he said. That is, more coordination will be required between all services, national and local, something that has not yet been put into practice to any great extent in Greece.