Water Crisis in Greece

Posted on February 1, 2011 by


Citrus: a water intensive crop.

The timing just couldn’t have been better. My friend Jenni Nylander and I left for Greece for research as part of a course we were taking on the day right before the blizzards hit northern Europe. There were no strandings, no delays and the flight to Athens was uneventful. Off went the thick winter jackets into storage, and the temperature registered a pleasing 23 degrees, a far cry from the -23 degrees in Uppsala. We had a great time, and though Jenni reminded me from time to time that we went to Greece for academic purposes we both enjoyed the cheap Greek wine. But this article isn’t about our holidays in Greece, but rather attitudes to and realities of water management in the country.

The class was divided into several groups, each with their own topics of research on a general theme that were agreed upon beforehand. I was to research on water shortages while Jenni would be working on “sustainable Greece”. She investigated people’s attitudes towards sustainability, mainly focussing on the question of whether people would prefer drinking bottled water rather than tap water, and negative environmental impact of bottled water. Others were focusing on water usage in the agricultural sector, rainwater harvesting, bath and spa culture in Greece, tourism and its effect on water consumption.

So, what have I found out? Firstly, water shortages are non-existent in in Greece, at least not in the region of Athens and Nafplio where I was conducting my survey. People generally don’t think twice when it comes to water consumption simply because there is an abundance of it and it’s easy and cheap to come by. If it has been up to me though, I would have gone over to the Greek islands and done a little excursion of my own. The islanders are the ones having water crises and they have to depend on the mainland for water support. Sadly, it was winter and the ferries weren’t operating from Nafplio where we were based for most of the time.

Because water is predominantly used by citrus farmers, we took a bike trip to the farms to have a chat. From what little information I could gather from them (English is not a strong suit of the farmers), they are a struggling lot who aren’t getting any subsidies from the government. They try make ends meet from the meagre pay they get from growing the crops. There are plans for the state to encourage organic farming by providing subsidies.  This is partly motivated by the fact that the fertilizers that the farmers are currently using are polluting the water sources which makes people drink bottled water and also cook with it. However, nothing has changed yet.

Every year in summer, the country is infested with tourists from all over the world, more so in the Cyclades Islands. The islands on their own have limited or no water sources to speak of meaning water has to be imported from the mainland which requires a lot of effort and money. The mainland however is also water stressed if  the annual rainfall doesn’t instead of quite reach the level required. During the dry season in 2008, the country was hit with a drought and water supply to the households was cut off, in favour of hotels and resorts. Priority was given to the tourism sector as it brings in the most money for the country. Countless projects have been approved to further attract tourists to the country, in the hope of improving the country’s finances, only recently having had to be propped up by bailouts. New golf courses, resorts, and swimming pools are all listed in the projects.

Poor governance is to blame for instances of poor water management in Greece. Few desalination plants are in the pipeline but bureaucracy and funding are delaying these projects indefinitely which would otherwise bring clean drinkable water to the people. The people that we talked to have little faith with in the current government, which they believe corrupt, and they don’t think the situation will improve any time soon. Talking to government officials shed a different light on the case. They claimed that the treated water is good enough for consumption without any health risks. We tried the water from the tap – apart from a little “interesting” taste it isn’t undrinkable. This is the problem: people no longer trust the government and they would still be drinking from bottles even if tap water is fine. ‘We are not taking any risks’, replied a local when asked.

Pipe leakages account to about 25% of water loss a local water authority spokesperson informed us. The authorities are right now replacing old pipes so as to provide cleaner water and reduce water wastage. However, most locals think it is a lie, and while water is relatively cheap in Greece, they have been billed for water works and maintenance which they believe have not been carried out. ‘Nothing ever happened’, the interviewees told me.

People asked us why we went all the way there to conduct research on water management when that was actually the least of their concerns. It’s true that something needs to be done to ensure the sustainability of water for future use, but they told us that there are more pressing matters at this time. Criminal activity has increased because people are unemployed. Strikes and riots are frequent because people are unhappy with the current government. People have water now and they are not worried about the water situation, despite global concerns about the future of water supply. Recent trends of dwindling annual precipitation means that water storage for drier months is at an all time low (Mimikou, 2005). The water table is dropping rapidly due to the slower natural groundwater recharge than its faster usage. Other concerns include seawater intrusion and nitrate pollution in aquifers (Voudouris, Daskalaki & Antonakos 2005).‘That’s just not what we think about right now’, they said. That said, Greece is a beautiful country that is blessed with splendid weather. The people are friendly and the food is just to die for. Not to mention the Ouzo and Raki. Booze is cheap and life is good!

Marcus Lim

Further reading:

Pearce, F. (2006) When the Rivers Run Dry: What Happens When Water Runs Out. London; Transworld Publishers.
Crouch, D.P. (1993) Water Management in Ancient Greek Cities. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jackson, S.J., (2008) Writing the Global Water Crisis, Technology and Culture, 49:3, pp. 773-778

Koutsoyiannis, D., Zarkadoulas, N., Angelakis, A. N. and Tchobanoglous, G., (2008) Urban water management in Ancient Greece: Legacies and lessons, Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management-ASCE,134:1,pp.45–54,

Karamos, A., Aggelides, S. and Londra, P. (2004) Non-conventional water use in Greece, Cairo, Egypt: Centre International de Hautes Études Agronomiques Méditérannéenne
Angelakis, A. N., Koutsoyiannis, D., and Tchobanoglous, G. (2005) Urban wastewater and stormwater technologies in ancient Greece, Water Research, 39:1, pp. 210–220.

Mimikou, M. A. (2005) Water Resources in Greece: Present and Future, Global NEST Journal, 7:3, pp. 313-322

Sofios, S., Arabatzis, G. and Baltas, E. (2007) Policy for management of water resources in Greece, The environmentalist,28(3),pp.185-194

Kitsantonis, N. (2007) Greece struggles with water shortage. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/03/world/europe/03iht-dry.4.6976449.html