Greek wetlands ‘can save water’

Greece is currently dangerously close to running out of water but widespread disorganization and apathy mean that the reuse of water – which could be achieved through the effective maintenance of the country’s wetlands – is not taking place, conservationists told a conference at the Gaia Center of Athens’s Goulandris Natural History Museum yesterday. The conference, which examined the potential benefits of conserving wetlands (land areas at least partially covered with water for all or parts of the year), reached certain key conclusions: – that the Greek government has yet to show an active interest in the conservation of the country’s wetlands, even though most of those areas are in dire need of attention; – that Greece is in a position, geographically and economically, to lead the Balkans in the desperately needed preservation of water; – that wetlands, apart from boosting water quantity and quality, could ultimately boost the Greek economy if their potential as beauty spots is developed and they are opened up to tourists (so-called «ecotourism»); – that the improvement of the relationship between wetlands and agriculture would benefit both water and soil resources in Greece. There is a real need for the drafting and careful implementation – on a local, national and international level – of a common plan for the conservation of wetlands in Greece and the Mediterranean, Dr George Zalidis, scientific adviser at the Wetland Center in Thessaloniki and professor of agronomy at the city’s Aristotle University, told delegates. The chief aim of Zalidis’s work at the center is to maintain Greece’s wetlands in line with EU directives – a goal which, all speakers agreed, was currently far from realization. But Zalidis emphasized that the development of wetlands affects agricultural balances and so cannot be considered in isolation. «Wetlands and agroecosystems can have positive and negative effects on each other and so a system needs to be implemented which boosts the advantages and limits the damage that each can inflict on the other,» Zalidis said. Carelessly conducted agriculture can pollute wetlands, while inadequate maintenance of wetlands can lead to seasonal flooding (as has happened at Lake Karlas in Thessaly), Zalidis noted. But Greece does not have only its own wetlands (and surrounding environment) to think about. «More than 50 percent of wetlands in the Mediterranean area have already been lost and Greece is among the countries that have a key role to play in ensuring the remaining 50 percent is not lost,» according to Thomas Crisman, Wetlands Center director and professor of environmental engineering at the University of Florida, who has been working closely with Dr Zalidis and advising the Thessaloniki Wetlands Center for the last seven years. Apathy «A relative apathy to the subject has meant that Greece hasn’t even defined where it wants to develop its wetlands yet, let alone pushed forward projects,» Crisman told Kathimerini English Edition, adding that the need for restricting water use to the minimum – and the role wetland regeneration can play in fulfilling this aim – has not really sunk in with many Greeks. Koronia Lake, in Macedonia, is a good example of the degeneration of Greece’s wetlands, Crisman said, noting that the lake, the third largest in Greece, is currently a third of the size it was five years ago. Although badly depleted, Koronia still has the potential for restoration and is a key focus of conservationists – unlike the wetland site at Schinias, near Marathon, where the construction of a nearby Olympic rowing center (and an artificial lake) is currently under way. Extensive rehabilitation work is also in progress at Lake Chimaditida, near Florina in northern Greece, where agricultural production drained extensive tracts of wetland, Crisman noted. But maintaining existing wetlands is just one way of managing water resources. By constructing artificial wetlands at ‘headwater» areas where water enters Greece from other countries, Greece could make a significant contribution toward protecting the water quality of the Axios River, for example, which crosses through Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Dr Crisman told Kathimerini English Edition that another key problem faced by Greece is that of excessive water use and inadequate treatment of sewage on its islands and in other popular tourist destinations – where the population more than doubles during the summer and is likely to skyrocket during the Olympic Games. On the other hand, Crisman promoted «ecotourism;» the development of wetlands into beauty spots open to tourists is one more reason to work on restoration as it would directly benefit the national economy. There is already talk of developing a wetland site at Mavrouda, north of Thessaloniki, for birdwatching, Crisman added. Another potential function of wetlands is the processing of animal waste which benefits the environment by restoring nitrogen to the atmosphere, according to Dr Richard O’Hegg, who heads the agricultural engineering section of the US Department of Agriculture. Dr O’Hegg told Kathimerini English Edition that he knew of no sites in Greece where wetlands are used to process natural waste, noting that Greece does not appear to have an established process for treating waste in general (which means extra pollution flowing into the sea – especially from the islands during tourist season.) Ideally, an initiative to promote the maintenance of wetlands, and their myriad functions, would be spearheaded by the government, but would involve all sides – including conservationists, agriculturist, state economists, and possibly even clerics. Indeed, the Church of Greece has reportedly approached Dr Crisman to propose the «education» of farmers, on the advantages of water conservation and treatment, by priests! «This is a realistic way of making wetland conservation a matter of importance to normal people,» Dr Crisman said. His words echoed those of Niki Goulandri, president of the Goulandris Museum, who opened yesterday’s conference: «Those who need to learn about the risks to our environment are those it is of most crucial concern to – children and farmers.»

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