Tuesday, 6 March 2001

The water wars

This editorial appeared in the Athens News in March 2001. 

MARK Twain once quipped that "whiskey's for drinking, water's for fighting about". Our own word "rival" comes from the Latin rivalis, meaning "using the same brook".

In Athens, a water consumption and supply graph for the 1990s looks like a pair of crossed swords. Marathon, Yliki and Mornos, the three lakes that supply the city, held 1.2 billion tonnes in 1990. In 2001 they held just over half that amount - 700 million tonnes. Consumption is speeding up, too. In 2000 alone Athenians used up 385 million tonnes.

Certainly, consumption can be checked at relatively short notice. In 1992, a price hike, hose pipe ban and stiff fines for exceeding household quotas brought consumption down by more than a quarter within a year. Athenians flushed the toilet with laundry water but there was no real suffering.

The truly worrying part of the equation is supply. When it comes to water, our technology is not a day ahead of the Sumerians'. We depend entirely on rain.

Throughout the 1990's Athens' reservoirs received 400-800 million tonnes of rainwater a year. Global warming reduced that to an estimated 140 million tonnes in 2001, with some tens of millions of tonnes of that sacrificed to evaporation.

Even the diversion of the river Evinos, which started supplying 200 million tonnes a year in 2002, cannot cover the deficit. The water company's final option will be to pump groundwater, a disastrous resort in the long term.

If Athens' situation makes depressing reading, the outlook for the rest of Greece is lacrimal. Cities use little over 10 percent of Greece's water supply. A whopping 83 percent goes to agriculture. Greece's breadbasket, Thessaly, is emblematic of the general problem.

Spurred on by the Common Agricultural Policy's promise to buy anything they grew at set prices, throughout the 1980's and 1990's Thessaly farmers produced two or three crops a year by intensive irrigation farming. They equipped themselves with the so-called 'cannon', a high-pressure spout that sends water soaring, then sprinkling as artificial rain. They also dug thousands of illegal wells to avoid paying for the water they used.

Socialist governments, in power throughout the 1980s and from 1993 to 2004 largely thanks to the farmers' vote, avoided the political cost of clamping down on the wells. Criminally, they never helped farmers adopt better irrigation methods. The 'cannon' loses up to sixty percent of water to evaporation.

But it was a time of plenty. The European Union was paying. And people are never prudent on someone else's bill.

Today, Thessaly's aquifer is so depleted that farms several miles from the sea are pumping brine. Soon, the salt will render them desert, and many families will lose their livelihood. Even inland, farmers know time is running out. The Pinios river that runs through Larissa is reduced to a poisonous trickle of agricultural runoff during summer.

Shortage has led to further folly. The old socialist promise to farmers, one that Thessalians have had preached to them so often they hold it up as a sort of Testament, emerged as the diversion of the Acheloos river - Greece's last, great untapped supply of sweet water.

The brainchild of a Greek engineer educated in the Soviet Union, the scheme would divert more than 2 billion tonnes of water to Thessaly via a tunnel through the Pindos mountains. The European Union disqualified the project for funds on environmental grounds, and Greece began construction alone. Today the tunnel and dams remain half-complete, frozen by a lack of funds.

If completed, the project would help perpetuate, not wash away, the mistakes of the past. Thessalians, like all Greek farmers, need to concentrate on water conservation and better crop management.
Drip irrigation, consisting of a network of perforated tubes sitting on or just below the soil surface, is one of the most effective new irrigation technologies. Experiments in the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District in Texas found the system to be 37 percent more water-efficient than furrows. It is gradually being promoted in Greece, but too slowly and perhaps too late.

Farmers need to choose crops according to the suitability of their terrain. Thessalians insist on cotton, a cash crop that guzzles water and nutrients. Kruschev's disastrous 'cottonification' of Uzbekistan in the 1960's turned Asia's fruitbowl into a dustbowl. It did the same to the American South in the 1930's. Eventually, it will do the same to Thessaly.

In all these improvements to the ways in which we farm and use water, the European Union must take a lead. Greek governments have shown a weak character when environmental planning pits itself against the popular vote.

Realistically, however, people can be trusted to exploit all they can before beginning to conserve it. Schemes such as the Acheloos diversion are likely to proliferate.

According to myth, Herakles fought the Acheloos for the hand of Dianeira. She turned out to be a disastrous prize, killing the hero by accident. Subsequent wrestlers should take note.