By Angeliki Koutantou and Renée Maltezou
MOUZAKI, Greece (Reuters) – Dimitris Kouretas, elected governor of Greece’s central Thessaly province last month following catastrophic flooding, has trouble sleeping at night.
September floods – the worst on record in Greece – devastated this fertile region, washing away farmland, roads and railways, and killing 16 people. It is the second major flood in three years to hit Thessaly, part of a trend of worsening extreme weather conditions across Europe.
Kouretas lists flood protection projects left unfinished by previous governments, including reservoirs to hold water in mountains, dredging of river beds and removal of debris from previous floods. Some have been blocked for nearly two decades, he said.
“Can I have a magic wand to solve the problem?” asked the 61-year-old, who is due to take office in January. Kouretas knows his administration will be judged on its ability to deal with the next flood: “If you don’t plan for adaptation to climate change… then you will be exposed.”
Reuters conducted interviews with twelve disaster experts, government officials and environmentalists, and reviewed Greek court documents and EU reports, which showed that Greece’s response is failing to keep pace of a rapid increase in extreme weather, held back by factors such as bureaucracy, inaction and inefficiency. climate adaptation techniques.
Following the previous major storm that flooded Thessaly in 2020, Greece’s conservative government vowed to prevent a repeat of the disaster.
Greece has made significant progress in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and promoting renewable energy for electricity production.
But with its public finances still recovering from a decade-long debt crisis, Greece – like many countries around the world – is struggling to find the multibillion-dollar funds needed to shore up its resilience. in the face of extreme weather events.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) concluded in a report last month that insufficient investment and planning was leaving the world vulnerable as climate-related risks increased, including in the eastern Mediterranean. The global financing gap for adaptation is estimated to be in the range of $194 billion to $366 billion.
“The climate crisis is coming faster than expected,” said Environment Minister Theodore Skylakakis, adding that the scale of the problem had been underestimated at European level. “These are pan-European issues… We are the first to experience them. But sooner or later we will all face them.”
Climate adaptation is a theme of this year’s annual United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 28), which opens on November 30 in Dubai.
Storm Daniel dumped 18 months’ worth of rain on Thessaly between September 4 and 7, briefly transforming its fertile plain – bordered to the north by Mount Olympus, home of Greece’s mythological gods – into a lake. The floods covered more than 1,100 km², an area roughly the size of Los Angeles.
It marked the end of a heatwave, one of the longest Greece has seen in decades, which had already wreaked havoc with deadly wildfires.
Neither floods nor fires are new to Greece, but with climate change they frequently disrupt an economy dependent on tourism and agriculture.
The damage caused by Storm Daniel – estimated at more than 2 billion euros according to a report by Dutch firm HVA International – has sparked an investigation into whether authorities did enough to prevent the disaster.
A September 13 prosecutor’s order, reviewed by Reuters, showed that judges in Thessaly were investigating the actions of local authorities between 2020 and 2023 for potential violations, including mismanagement of funds, that could have worsened the impact of storm.
Former Thessaly governor Kostas Agorastos, who suffered a shock defeat in last month’s elections due to anger over the floods, said that since 2020, around 70 projects worth 164 million euros had been undertaken, in particular the cleaning of waterways and the strengthening of dikes. Some of them are not finished.
He has not commented on the investigation.
Greece’s multiple layers of bureaucracy can delay or derail projects. Just getting permission to clear a river can take years, says Giorgos Stasinos, president of the Technical Chamber of Greece, an association of engineers that acts as an adviser to the state on engineering and construction practices.
“It could take two years of bureaucracy for a project that takes two or three months,” he said, noting that local opposition on environmental grounds can lead to lengthy court battles.
Another challenge is the lack of government capacity. The Greek National Meteorological Service (EMY) does not have the necessary equipment to issue flood warnings in real time, says the Greek emergency plan published in October 2022.
Greece has launched a 2 billion euro program that includes the purchase of weather radars and a so-called “nowcasting” system that will help predict flooding.
Opposition parties have accused Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ government of lacking the political will to implement national plans to combat flood risks.
“They are all left in a drawer,” the head of the parliamentary group of the left-wing Syriza party, Sokratis Famellos, told an environmental conference this month.
The European Commission decided on November 16 to refer Greece to the EU Court of Justice for failing to provide up-to-date flood maps after Athens failed to meet the 2020 deadline. The ministry Environment said it aimed to deliver them by November 30 and would include data on worsening extreme weather in recent years, without which the maps risked being misleading .
“We need to change our forecasting methods,” Skylakakis said, acknowledging the rapid pace of climate change. “Instead of focusing on the past, we need to look to the future.”
In Greece, the building frenzy that began in the 1950s – amid a post-war economic boom – led to chaotic urban development. It is not uncommon to see buildings on dry riverbeds that turn into torrents during heavy rains.
A good example of this are the buildings that dot the banks of the Pamisos River in Thessaly, whose bed has been shrunk by up to 70% near the town of Mouzaki. A medical care unit in Mouzaki partially collapsed into the river in 2020; another two-story building was swept away this year.
Thanos Giannakakis, coordinator of nature-based solutions at WWF, said extreme weather conditions made it vital to restore the natural environment around Greek rivers: “the only way out is to give space to the rivers, to reconnect to floodplains.”
Restoring riparian forests, natural river meanders and dams in the mountains would help reduce flooding, he said.
Greece plans to devote 3.2 billion euros of public and EU funds to climate resilience by 2027, Deputy Finance Minister Nikos Papathanasis told Reuters.
The Netherlands, a leading proponent of “nature-based” solutions, has spent an amount roughly equivalent to around $2.8 billion to encompass 30 projects between 2007 and 2022 as part of its program “Room for the river”.
This allowed four rivers in the Dutch delta space to overflow safely. Measures included moving levees inland, lowering floodplains and groynes, creating flood channels and water storage areas.
After Storm Daniel, Greece sought help from HVA International, a Netherlands-based agricultural company that offers post-disaster consulting.
HVA teams found poor maintenance of levees, uncleaned river beds and overlapping roles in managing flood defence, its CEO Miltiadis Gkouzouris told Reuters.
According to the HVA mission report, all flood defense infrastructure needs to be rebuilt and crisis management protocols, clearly stipulating responsibilities and actions to be taken, are necessary.
“There is clear momentum and a fundamental need for change,” says the report released last week.
Greece, the euro zone’s most indebted country by share of GDP, approved an additional 600 million euros this year for disaster relief measures.
The government announced in September a doubling of annual funds reserved for natural disasters, from 2024 to 600 million euros, although officials acknowledge that this will not be enough. Mitsotakis urged the EU to supplement its solidarity fund and help countries deal with the impact of climate change.
With the government unable to cover all risks, Mitsotakis said in September that he planned to make private flood insurance mandatory and would, in the meantime, offer tax incentives starting next year to people who insure their homes.
The Greek central bank warned in 2011 that the economic cost of climate change would reach 700 billion euros by 2100, the equivalent of more than three years of economic output, if the country did not act.
Adaptation measures worth 67 billion euros could reduce that loss to 510 billion euros, the country’s leading economic think tank, IOBE, said in a February report.
But officials say there is little the country can do.
“No country in the world predicts rainwater levels once every 1,000 years, because it would not drown in rainwater, it would drown in debt much sooner,” said Petros Varelidis , general secretary for water management at the Ministry of the Environment.
(Additional reporting by Lefteris Papadimas, Louisa Gouliamaki and Stamos Prousalis; writing by Renee Maltezou and Michele Kambas; editing by Daniel Flynn)
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