Fiume Acheloos

The river Acheloos - diffendale/flickr

A huge project, madness for many: deviating the course of the Achelous River and have it flow into the Aegean instead of the Ionian Sea. Following the resistance of the Greek Council of State, the EU and the environmentalists, the project seemed to have been set aside for good. Now, aided by the crisis, it has come to be topical again

10/01/2013 -  Gilda Lyghounis

The river-god had put his mind at rest. The mortals had set aside the mad project of deviating his course, the same that for millennia has run along the mountainous cliffs of the Pindus, flowing down for 280 kilometres among ancient temples sacred to the Olympus gods, among Byzantine churches, Ottoman stone bridges and the villages whose few souls embrace the main square’s sycamore. Now, however, with the excuse of coming out of the economic crisis, these blasphemous great-grandchildren of the ancient Greeks have pulled out that sacrilegious plan again.

Science fiction? Not really: it is what is happening to the largest Greek river, the Achelous. Legendarily born from father Ocean and the nymph Tethys, it has since flown through the Pindus mountains down to the Messolonghi lagoon, into the Ionian sea. Well, for decades now, some have wanted to deviate it into the Thessaly planes to irrigate the maize and cotton fields and into the Aegean.

Just to be clear: up until now, the Achelous has poured into the coast facing Italy and its delta is populated with over 30.000 animal species, including flamingoes, sea eagles, woodcocks, ducks, pelicans, frogs, turtles and monk vultures in the Messolonghi lagoon. All this has been so far protected by the EU under the project Natura 2000 and by the Treaty of Ramsat on damp areas. Once the works are over, however, the delta will be dried up while, on the opposite bank, the water will submerge entire villages, Ottoman bridges, classical ruins and Byzantine churches painted with frescoes.

A 180 degree-turn around itself, thanks to an already finished 18-kilometre gallery under the Pindus chain - the spine of Greece - and a series of dams and artificial lakes. As a result of the detour, the flamingoes and all the species in the Messolonghi lagoon on the Ionian sea will die of thirst; agrotourism will drop, as will the trekking and cycling that in the past few years had allured all those looking for peaceful holidays, far from the usual sunny beaches and clear waters…

The river takes another road

The river-god has been worried, in the past few days. Indeed, the Greek Council of State has banned works six times in a row and in the ‘90s the EU banned the continuation of works on the grounds of high risk of ‘disasters for the environment and the cultural and historical heritage’, reaffirmed in a report requested by the Council of State in 2010.

Despite all this, and aided by the economic crisis, the all-out supporters of the project ‘the river takes another road’ are speaking up again.

‘They are asking for a seventh pronouncement from the Council of State, this time extorted claiming it is a general emergency’, as is explained to OBC by Theodora Nantsu, Director of WWF Greece and long-standing opponent of the project. ‘As if the tragic problems of Greece could be solved by destroying two biotopes – Messolonghi and Thessaly – which are not only dedicated to intensive farming but include another area protected by Natura 2000’.

The 90’s bans issued by the EU have since been dodged, passing off the deviation of the river as ‘power works’ and not as ‘hydraulic works for water supply’. Indeed, all dams have been designed to also produce electric energy. Thus, works continued in stealth up until two years ago, when the crisis imposed a final stop to them.

Fair enough, but with what money does the Greek government wish to take them back? Four-hundred and fifty-two million Euros are needed. The WWF points out that ‘Europe has already stated that it refuses to co-finance the project, so the funds are all going to be national. Where they are going to come from is not clear: yet another manoeuvre on salaries and pensions? Since the International Monetary Fund requires the selling off of public assets, will it be foreign investors?’

Father Xenophon: ‘We are in the hands of the Divine Providence’

Sixty-two years old, Father Xenophon is the only priest guarding the venerable Saint George Monastery in Myrophyllo, a town of 105 people (and 200 goats), 550 meters above sea level and very close to the present level of the river. Close, too close to the dam under construction in Sykia, 150 meters-high: from this artificial basin, the Achelous will enter the mega-tunnel under the Pindus to come out in Drakoporta (Port of the Dragon), first town of the Thessaly plane.

When the two basins of Mesochora and Sykia are filled with water, the district between the two dams will be swept away. Father Xenophon, ready to bravely challenge the Great Wave, tells us: ‘For many years, we have lived under siege, up until two years ago the bulldozers deafened us. Then, silence. Are you really saying works might start again now? Now? After decades of solitude and vocation crises? Now that we have added two new cells and a new monk has arrived in this monastery absorbed in the church!

The politicians had then assured us that a 30-meter high cement barrier would be built around our cenoby, otherwise we would be completely submerged. But the dam they have built 35 kilometers to the North, in Mesochora, is already showing the first cracks, even before it is filled with water. What will happen to us? And what about the frescoes on the Birth of the Virgin, from the 17th Century, restored in 2000 along with three cells in the Monastery? That took a 50.000 Euro-funding from the EU. Is all that money just going to be thrown out the window? My wife and I are not moving. We are in the hands of the Divine Providence, now’.

A few details on Father Xenophon: he took the vows when he was 35 and already married to Maria, 9 years older than him. The rules of the Orthodox Christian Church allowed him to sleep in the marriage bed and conceive a child after another: three girls and one boy, to be precise, who now work in the regions’ capital, Trikala. The celibate novices, instead, are not allowed to get married.

‘The Monastery dates back to the 11th Century and now only serves masses for the faithful, if not for the only newly-come Monk’, Father Xenophon continues. ‘The economic crisis? Of course, it has hit us too. The State pays my salary: it used to be 1.300 Euros per month. Now it is down to 750 Euros. It is good that my children are adults and have jobs. For heating, we go on with a wood stove, as most of those living in the region. Domestic fuel oil and gasoline are now too expensive: you know, for Christmas emigrants would come back to their home town from Athens, we used to welcome up to 200 people to the end-of-year mass. During the holiday season, now, we are lucky if, along our 20 usual faithful, we can welcome 40 others from Trikala, Arta and very few from Athens. Travelling is expensive. Then, if they start again with that mad project of deviating the river, it is going to be tragic.

A corner of Greece, far from mass tourism, in danger

The Saint George church is not the only monument that may end up under water.

‘On the Arentio River, flowing into the Achelous, we have an ancient bridge that travellers have crossed since 1240 AD’, we are told by Giorgio Raptis, President of the Myrophyllo community - 1400 inhabitants scattered along five parishes. Then along the river, in Varghiània, there are ruins from a 5th Century BC temple and tombs from the 10th Century BC. Just a few kilometres away, in Diaselo, archaeologists have found houses and coins from the time of Alexander The Great. Not to talk about the villages that will be swept away, partly or completely. They sure have beautiful names: Milotopos (place of apples), Saint George, Fteri (wing), Platania, Neraida (nymph).

This part of Greece is not assailed and ravaged by mass tourism: the most tourists do here is trekking in the woods and rafting in the Achelous along with the trout. Small villages resist, clinging to a square with a sycamore or a millennium-old chestnut tree; elderly men play backgammon-like games sitting at the tables, in front of a glass of water and ouzo. In Mesochora’s square, for instance, near the first completed dam (135 meters-high), there is a red line above the sign of the only café, with the writing “785 meters”. ‘That is where the new Achelous level will rise to when they fill in the artificial basin’, Raptis explains. Along with the café, the post office and a third of the 400 houses scattered along the side of the mountain between 600 and 900 meters of altitude will be swept away. On the walls of City Hall, a sign hung by the enraged villagers: ‘Mesochora will live’.

At stake, the votes of the Thessaly farmers

Awaiting the Great Wave, which seemed to have been avoided, on the tops in sheer drop over the narrow valley, reaching a height of 2,000 meters, wolves, bears, hawks and roes stand waiting. The level of the Achelous will rise in two years, if everything goes as planned. To what end? To irrigate the 240.000 that will become 380.000 hectares of the Thessaly plane, they said. Maize and cotton, cultivated down there, are the two major resources of the Greek economy. ‘Such a shame that bringing water there will serve very little purpose’, Vassilis Dorovinis explains. President of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage, he has been fighting for years against this large project, along with WWF Greece, Greanpeace and BirdLife International.

‘The EU no longer wants to fund intensive farming such as for cotton, or increase Greek agricultural production, in favour of other States’ “shares”. Furthermore, the irrigation system in Thessaly wastes an enormous quantity of water. Supplying other water will only make the problem worse’. Environmentalists have thus dragged the Greek government before the Council of State on the grounds of ‘environmental disaster and defiance of EU directives on hydro-ecological equilibrium’. The Greek Supreme Court has ruled in their favour five times since 1994, the latest in January of 2006, each time stopping works at the site. Indeed, the EU refuses to fund the deviation of the Achelous River.

However, in 2007, the Minister for Environment and Public Works (coupling these two ministries already says it all) had gone back to the issue and ordered works be resumed, with slight changes to the original project: only 40% of the river water would be deviated, ‘except for cases of water shortages and emergencies in the cities and agricultural settlements’. And, since the climate in Greece has changed and in 2012 it rained 80% less than average, emergencies will probably be constant.

Not only. ‘They had the guts to say that the waters of the Achelous will make those of the Thessaly Pinaios River less polluted as they are now choked by chemical substances used in the fields!’, Athens’ WWF Elena Nantsu points out. ‘The true reason for this folly? The landslide of votes from the farmers and the lobbies in the building industry’, Dorovinis continues. ‘That is why in Greece both the socialist party and the centre-right party, now leading, have always reached agreements on this reckless project. We could use some Zapatero here too: he blocked the planned deviation of the great Ebro River, from the North to the dry Spanish South. He explained that with the same money, 20 sea desalination plants could be built for agricultural purposes’. Greek environmentalists want to keep fighting their battle. But bulldozers are advancing at full speed.

The Minister for Public Works claims an ‘earthwork’

Why keep exercising violence on a river? ‘This major work is mainly earthwork’. That is the answer they gave us at the Ministry for Public Works, ‘The Sykia dam will produce green energy for 296 GWh a year. The same will be done by the smallest dams foreseen at the entrance to Thessaly: in Pefkofyto (360 GWh a year), in Mouzaki (245 GWh) and in Mavromati (56 GWh). All of this will cost 220 million Euros, 110 of which have already been spent. The budget also comprises 40 million Euros to distribute water on the Thessaly plane, but also to build the barrier to defend the Saint George Monastery in Myrophyllo’.

This barrier is indeed one of the causes of scandal: ‘It will not hold, it would have been better to move the cenoby higher up the mountain’, the renowned architect Velisarios Voutsas underlines. ‘As of today, the Ministry does not have a project, not even a hint of a project, on how the dike will be built’, Dorovinis adds.

And while in Myrophyllo Father Xenophon trusts in the Divine Providence while awaiting the flood, to the South, in the Achelous delta, men and animals await the Great Thirst: ‘It has not rained in months. The level of the Kremastì lake, crossed by the Achelous, has already gone down to 4 meters’, tells Dimitris Limburidis, doctor in the city of Agrinio. ‘What will happen when we get half of the water from river, if we are lucky? Our biotope, the only one on the Mediterranean, will be destroyed, because the Messolonghi lagoon, protected from the sea by sand islands and cane fields, will become much saltier. The consequence? Shells and fresh water micro-organisms on which the insects feed, will die. And the birds that come here for the winter, 200 species comprising very rare ones, will no longer find food. And let us not forget about the economic impact: our region has invested a lot in ecotourism. According to the DEI (note: the Greek public power corporation), we will have less hydroelectric power, for a total of 3 million Euros a year’.

Will the river-god still be able to fight?

Right here in Messolonghi, in 1821, there was an important siege by the Greeks fighting for independence from the Ottoman Empire: Lord Byron fought side by side with them and requested that his heart be buried here. ‘We did not surrender then, we will not surrender now!’, Lamburidis threatens. In the meantime, the Achelous continues to flow through Greece. Poor river: they will bring him down to hell through a tunnel. Him, whom the ancients respected like a god.

The river-god, son of Ocean, fell in love with Hercules’ wife, Deianira. To win her heart, he fought with the Rambo of Greek mythology, turning into a bull and a snake: that is why his bed is so winding. Will he be able to fight this time, too?

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