Half of Greece may turn to desert

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Half the country may turn to desert

Man and an extended drought have changed the countryside

Nearly half of Greece's territory is at risk of becoming desert. The country has sufficient water resources, but human beings ensure that there is no water when nature needs it. By Thanassis Tsinganas


THESSALONIKI - Some of Greece's islands are well on their way to becoming deserts. Forest fires and human intervention, intensive livestock breeding and overgrazing on ground that cannot support it, continual road building and extended drought are seen as the main causes of this situation.

Crete's Asterousia Mountains in the prefecture of Iraklion have been the subject of research into the dangers of desertification in Greece. The results of the survey are a guide for the state to use to avert a similar situation occurring elsewhere in Crete or other islands that are close to meeting a similar fate.

G. Tsiourlis, a researcher at the National Foundation for Agricultural Research, said the Asterousia Mountains were chosen because they are considered to be among the most degraded areas. Crete is an area that has some of the country's most degraded ecosystems. Apart from the Asterousia Mountains, there are similar problems in other parts of the island.

According to Tsiourlis, the situation that is common to many parts of the Mediterranean, is mainly due to uncontrolled human intervention (fires, overgrazing and tree-felling) that has intensified in recent years as unsealed roads are built and tourism has changed livestock-breeding and farming patterns in mountain areas. Flock sizes have grown, and overgrazing means that an area does not have a chance to recover.

As a result, phrygana (low shrubs) has become the most common vegetation in Crete, covering 25 percent of the island, a determining factor in desertification. "The risk of desertification is inversely proportional to the vegetation cover. Dense phrygana protects land from erosion," said Tsiourlis. In the Asterousia Mountains, which reach a height of 1,231 meters, researchers in two programs funded between 1996-1999 by the EU and the General Secretariat for Research and Technology, have made detailed observations of ecosystems at 100 sites. At 23 study stations they used old aerial photographs and recent satellite images to compare past and present. They saw that the greatest changes had taken place before 1940 and that some sectors have sustained irreversible damage, at least for the next few decades.

Among the measures they propose in order to reduce the phenomenon, the experts point to the immediate need to change livestock management practices, alternating grazing areas and a ban on grazing wherever areas of vegetation need to be revived. The purpose is not to reduce livestock breeding but to achieve a sustainable use of the areas of phrygana.

'Water is no longer free'

By Tania Georgiopoulou


Agriculture Minister Giorgos Anomeritis spoke to Kathimerini about the plan of action against desertification, how water shortages will be dealt with in the future, and how water is no longer a free commodity.

Since the plan of action against desertification was drafted in Greece, what has been done in practice?

The Agriculture Ministry and regional services are already planning and implementing projects. The final text of the plan has been sent to all agencies and each of them submits local application plans. I personally have a lot of confidence in local government and farmers' organizations, once they view their interests in broader terms than the usual economic demands.

Billing excess consumption

What thoughts are there about billing for excess water consumption in agricultural use?

The belief that farmers use water for free is mistaken. They are charged enough to cover the administrative costs of the water used. Of course, excess consumption will be billed and included in production costs. Water is no longer a free commodity.

The Greek committee for combating desertification has proposed specific measures, such as combining crops. Has there been any action in this direction?

We have to replace the "We'll be thirsty" slogan with "We'll go hungry." A person requires two liters of water a day, while a plant needs 2,500 liters to mature. This means that we have to link agriculture with sustainability, crops with water management.

Saving water

What is the ministry's policy on saving water, given that, despite all the projects, large amounts of water run off into the sea during the winter?

We have already built 62 dams and reservoirs, and we have announced a decentralized program of smaller measures to collect water from highland and lowland areas, costing a total of 970 billion drachmas. At the same time we are taking action on underground water and water from biological cleansing. The main objective now is for every plant to have its own water, meaning some kind of drip watering system.

There is nothing to celebrate when we are almost all at risk

Yesterday we celebrated another day dedicated to the environment, World Day Against Desertification. But there is little cause to celebrate when 50 percent of Greek land is in danger of desertification, largely as a result of the overuse of soil and water resources. According to the Greek committee that drafted the action plan against desertification, the 50 percent of the land which is inhabited by 90 percent of the population is at varying levels of risk.

The areas with the most serious problems are Attica, Crete, the eastern Peloponnese, central Greece, eastern Macedonia, Thessaly and the Aegean Islands.

Desertification is the degeneration of the soil's productive capability, and is due to a combination of factors, but chiefly, as the committee notes, to the ways in which man exploits nature.

Fires, intensive cultivation, overgrazing, excessive irrigation and the development of industrial and tourist activities have an adverse affect on natural resources.

The committee suggests lines of action which must be followed in order to curb the process of desertification and to ensure sustainable development.

But forests are still being burnt, soil erosion is becoming more extensive, and many cubic meters of water still run off into the sea every year.



-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 18, 2001

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