Drought and water ‘ownership’

There have been several features shown on television regarding the problem of water shortages. In one documentary aired recently, a young journalist asks a middle-aged farmer, on the site of his farm next to the water-sprinkler, whether he used any special device to measure the amount of water he uses. «What would I do with it? I don’t know how much water my crops need. And who is going to stop me from taking as much water as I want from my well? It’s my water.» It’s his water? This stance is the result of centuries of instruction to farmers that whatever is above, below or on their land – whether it be air, water, animals, even workers, until recently – is exclusively their property. And it is very difficult to challenge this deeply rooted conviction. But in fact the water extracted from the well by drilling is not the farmer’s property. A recent Kathimerini report notes that the hundreds of thousands of boreholes – half of them illegal – have transformed Greece into one massive sieve. However much water falls, in the form of rain or snow, it is strained through these bore holes and ends up seeping through to the, increasingly submerged, water table. Much of this water ends up in the sea. Many are warning of a biblical-scale disaster, of the beginning of a trend of «desertification» which will wreak irreversible damage in certain regions. The mountains surrounding the Thessaly Plain have been drained of moisture. Springs and small rivers have virtually disappeared. The stone taps in mountain villages are either dry or have very little water. This is how the Thessaly farmers are saving «their» water. Politicians do not tell farmers the truth – that water is not anyone’s property and that no one has the right to waste it; it belongs to the nation’s assets and, as a dwindling resource, requires logical collective management. We cannot expect water to adapt to our needs but must realize that we must tailor our needs to our dwindling water reserves. No politician has told farmers that subsidizing high water-consuming crops, such as cotton and corn, eventually destroys the product itself as well as damaging the earth. Greece used to produce cotton of exceptional quality which sold well on the global market. But now – with excessive fertilizers and the delusion of plentiful water – farmers are cultivating the most unsuitable land in order to pocket, not the fruits of their labor, but crop subsidies. The government should consider subsidizing farmers to stop cultivating cotton, or at least to switch to other crops. For 25 years, authorities have been obsessed with diverting the Acheloos River, ignoring the needs of the river itself. Water management should be considered on a national scale, not in relation to the votes of the Thessaly farmers.