Environment and Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias yesterday described a controversial plan to divert the waters of the Acheloos River in western Greece to the heavily farmed Thessaly Plain as «a project of national significance,» noting that the cultivation of cotton was crucial to the economy and must be protected. Speaking after a tour of the region that included an inspection of works to create the diversion, the minister said that the project would be operational three years from now. Souflias dismissed worries expressed by conservationists about the excessive use of water, stressing that his priority was to facilitate farmers in Thessaly. «The most important and basic thing is that the water gets to Larissa – the rest can be considered later,» he said. Questioned by Kathimerini about the large volumes of water being consumed for agriculture as water reserves dwindle, the minister suggested that farming was not the problem. «The lack of water in Thessaly is 80 percent attributable to a reduction in rainfall and only 20 percent attributable to poor water management,» Souflias said. The minister went on to condemn environmentalists for promoting the cultivation of biofuels which, he said, require more water than traditional crops. The first phase of the Acheloos diversion project is the construction of a 165-meter-high dam at Sykia with the capacity to hold 530 million cubic meters of water. A 17.5-kilometer tunnel linking Sykia to the village of Pefkofyto, near Karditsa, is due for completion in May. The diversion project will be accompanied by the construction of two hydroelectric power stations, Souflias said. «The power stations will produce around 400 megawatts of electricity per year, or 4 percent of the country’s energy,» Souflias said.