Unreliable services pose a public threat

It happened in Iraklion but it could just as well have been Corinth or Volos. For months, residents in and around the village of Kastamonitsa had been drinking water from a tank full of dead rats. The main bone of contention is not how the rats got into the tank – and why they were left there – but the indifference of the local authorities responsible for public health. Although there were indications that the water was heavily polluted early on, no local official took the trouble to look into it. If a local residents’ group had not taken the initiative to get the water tested, the villagers might still be drinking the contaminated water. Even when the municipal authorities ascertained the cause of the problem, the tank was not disinfected and the water supply was not suspended. The residents’ group had to intervene, once again, and oversee a new set of tests, before the municipal authorities proceeded with the necessary disinfection. There are many reasons for polluted drinking water in Greece: industrial waste, pesticides, malfunctions in underground water networks that lead to sewage entering the supply. It is not only the Asopos River – effectively a drain for the waste of 300 manufacturers – which is poisoning drinking water in parts of Attica and Viotia. A series of chemicals – some carcinogenic – including nitrates, lead, chlorine, arsenic and asbestos have been traced in the drinking water of several municipalities over the past years. Around 20 municipalities filed complaints with the European Commission’s environment directorate, which sent warning letters to the Greek government two years ago. But the government has not yet drafted a comprehensive plan for tackling the problem, failing to exploit available EU funding for the necessary projects. It is unclear what is more of a threat to the public: unreliable water or unreliable municipal services. I would say the services. After all, every problem can be resolved as long as the will is there to do so. But perhaps the lack of will is the problem. It is not only the faulty state mechanisms and lack of systematic inspections that are to blame. It is also the lazy «civil servant» mentality. Faced with an acute problem, local authority officials will procrastinate, often to serve certain interests. But this needs to stop. Citizens in positions of responsibility need to realize that their job is not to cover up inadequacies and shortfalls by using bureaucratic tricks, but to protect public health, promote the public interest and solve problems. We need a new ethos and a new vision if we are to become human again – both citizens and politicians.