Friday, 14 July 2006

The Ablution of Thessaly's Sins

There needs to be a complete change of mindset in the way in which environmental policy is made. Natural resources now need to be seen in terms of what they can viably afford, not in terms of what we want from them

The Acheloos river diversion is being attempted for the fifth time. Four Council of State decisions have stopped it on environmental grounds since it began in 1979. Each time, the project's technical specifications were tinkered with and it was relaunched. 

Procedural sleights of hand are still the project's hallmark. Public Works Minister George Souflias recently introduced it on the back of the land registry bill, which is a high priority for the government. Parliament's Scientific Committee rejected the marriage, whereupon Souflias re-introduced the land registry legislation unburdened, passed muster at the committee and subsequently brought the Acheloos clauses as amendments, which the committee does not see.

Clauses that piggyback on bills they are completely unrelated to are a bain of western democracy, but they usually don't sanction projects of the size of the Acheloos diversion. Parliament this week voted through the bill "in principle", and will debate particular articles next week. Environmentalists' hopes of stopping the diversion, as before, rest with the courts.

Introducing the latest attempt to complete the diversion, Souflias made no suggestion on July 6 that his ministry had in any way altered the specifications or conducted environmental impact studies that the courts might accept. The only change is communicative. The diversion is now being presented as a rescue plan for Thessaly's environment and cities. But these reasons would not necessitate the diversion of 600 million tonnes of water a year - about a fifth of the river's flow. The unspoken priority is the irrigation of Thesaly's cotton farms.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Thessalians were allowed to treat water as a resource that no-one was responsible for, no-one had to pay for, yet everyone could use at will. European farm subsidies rewarded overproduction. Thessalians dug their own wells, and graves, while Socialist governments stood by. Today seawater is invading the water table and chemical pesticide and fertiliser is becoming concentrated in it. Thessalians have never been trained in sustainable farming practices, but they have been taught to rely upon the political promise of water from the Acheloos to continue methods that are environmentally and economically non-viable.

Greece has said it will discuss a reduction in European agricultural subsidies in 2013, so this is meant to be a transitional period, allowing some farmers to move into the services sector, where Greece has a strength, or change their methods to make more of their income from the open market (switching to organic goods, for instance) or crops (abandoning tobacco and cotton, for instance).

But the resurrection of the Acheloos project demonstrates two things: that New Democracy is no less susceptible to the farmers' vote than Pasok was (the shifting of farmer sympathies in 2004 largely decided the election); and that New Democracy has no better an idea than Pasok did of how to care for the environment or implement change in the rural economy.

Souflias is asking voters to choose the lesser of two evils: Either Thessaly will be destroyed, or we must take water from the Acheloos at a relatively small risk to its basin and delta (and the cost of hundreds of millions of euros). Compromise may be a high art in politics, but the insidious logic of picking the lesser evil can be destructive when it comes to the environment. While ecosystems may have degrees of health, they also have absolutes. As the tuna stocks of the Mediterranean are demonstrating, ecosystems have points of collapse.

The logic of the lesser evil may seem viable today, when the Acheloos is healthy and Thessaly holds out some possibility of self-sustainment. But because it is true of all people who have never been held to account for their mistakes that they will continue to make them, and will become more entitled in the process, it is a certainty that the Acheloos will merely enable the Thessalians to resist change.

Capabilities create intentions. Today Thessaly merely wants to save itself. Once that has been achieved, it is highly imaginable that it will be encouraged to use the water of the Acheloos even more wastefully. As EU subsidies fall and global temperatures rise, Thessaly would find it politically easy to increase the diversion to, say, 30 percent of the Acheloos' flow. The likely outcome is that Thessaly will not be saved, but the Acheloos river basin will be damaged.

There needs to be a complete change of mindset in the way in which environmental policy is made. If we continue to see natural resources as objects of competition, we shall never see them outside the utilitarian sphere. That is the old philosophy, which drained wetlands for farming and considers all water flows into the sea a waste.

With humanity scheduled to reach 9 billion by 2050, it is a given that all natural resources will be oversubscribed. In the new survival mathematics of the human race, we can no longer deduct our needs from the whole. Natural resources now need to be seen in terms of what they can viably afford, not in terms of what we want from them. We can no longer adjudicate between claims, but must also be prepared to reject them, for a clamour of claims can eventually destroy their object.

It may seem that Souflias, who is elected in Thessaly, needs political courage of a particular kind to tell this to his voters. But they are already sceptical about the Acheloos diversion. In an opinion survey conducted on behalf of the Elliniki Etairia 18 months ago, Thessalians were asked whether the diversion should go ahead for economic reasons, regardless of environmental impact. The yes and no votes were split at 39 percent each. Asked whether cotton farmers ought to produce as much cotton as they liked regardless of environmental impact, 65 percent of Thessalians answered no.

Such figures suggest a population ready to be convinced of the need for a new direction. With a concerted campaign involving financial incentives and training, and the right rhetoric coming from all ministries, it should be quite possible to engineer social and environmental change in Thessaly.

Unfortunately, it seems that New Democracy is no more willing or better able to imagine and undertake something so ambitious than Pasok was.

It would be very different if Souflias had collaborated with Agriculture Minister Evangelos Basiakos to produce a blueprint for reducing the dependence of Thessaly on EU subsidies, or an environmental study of how Thessaly's water table can be restored without importing water; and along with these a study projecting what will happen to Thessaly in the next 20 years if nothing changes. Then the diversion scheme would be comparable to alternatives. As it is, the government seems to have given up on the idea of an alternative.

George Souflias is a man behind the times. He has consistently shown that he is unconcerned with the progress of the environment ministry, leaving unimplemented dozens of European Commission exhortations and orders. He has not effectively tackled the problem of unregulated rubbish disposal in the capital, Attica's incomplete sewage treatment plant, or the underfunding of national parks. He is now trying to connect his name to one of the biggest environmental blunders this country is ever likely to make, at a cost of over six percent of this country's annual tax income.

Finding a competent manager to absorb as many EU funds as possible for public works is much easier than finding someone who understands that the environment is now a priority as high as development. Souflias has failed utterly in the second duty. It is time for him to go.

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