Greek floods and fires expose Europe’s weak climate defences
Written by Angeliki Kotanto and Rene Maltezzo
MOOUZAKI, Greece (Reuters) – Dimitris Koretas, governor of the central Greek region of Thessaly elected last month in the wake of catastrophic floods, is finding it difficult to sleep at night.
Greece’s September floods – the worst ever – devastated the fertile region, washing away farmland, roads and railways, and killing 16 people. This is the second major flood in three years to hit Thessaly, and is part of a pattern of extreme weather in Europe.
Koretas displays a list of flood protection projects left incomplete by previous governments, including reservoirs to hold water in the mountains, dredging riverbeds, and removing debris from previous floods. He said some of them have been stopped for two decades.
“Can I have a magic wand to solve the problem?” asked the 61-year-old, who is due to take office in January. Koretas realizes that his administration will be judged on its ability to handle the next flood: “If you don’t plan on adapting to climate change… you will be at risk.”
Reuters interviewed a dozen disaster experts, government officials and environmental activists, and reviewed Greek court documents and European Union reports, which showed that Greece’s response is failing to keep pace with the rapid increase in extreme weather, and is hampered by factors including bureaucracy, inaction and ineffectiveness. Climate adaptation techniques.
Following the previous major storm that flooded Thessaly in 2020, Greece’s conservative government promised to prevent a repeat of the disaster.
Greece has made significant progress in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and promoting renewable energy sources for electricity production.
But as its public finances continue to recover from a decade-long debt crisis, Greece – like many countries around the world – is struggling to find the billions of dollars in funds needed to build resilience to extreme weather events.
The United Nations Environment Program concluded in a report last month that insufficient investment and planning leave the world vulnerable as climate-related risks increase, including in the eastern Mediterranean. Estimates indicate that the global deficit in financing for adaptation ranges between $194 and $366 billion.
“The climate crisis is coming faster than expected,” Environment Minister Theodor Skylakakis said, adding that the scale of the problem had been underestimated at the European level. “These are European questions… We are the first to experience them. But sooner or later we will all face them.”
Climate adaptation is the theme of this year’s edition of the annual UN Climate Change Conference (COP 28) which opens on November 30 in Dubai.
Storm Daniel dropped 18 months’ worth of rain on Thessaly from September 4 to 7, briefly turning its fertile plain – bordered to the north by Mount Olympus, home of mythical Greek gods – into a lake. The floods covered more than 1,100 square kilometers, 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 caused deadly forest fires.
Floods and fires are not new to Greece, but with climate change, they have become a cause of disruption to the economy that depends on tourism and agriculture.
The damage caused by Storm Daniel – estimated at more than €2 billion according to a report by Dutch post-disaster consultants HVA International – has sparked an investigation into whether the authorities did enough to prevent the disaster.
The prosecutor’s order issued on September 13, seen by Reuters, showed that judges in Thessaly are investigating the actions of local authorities in 2020-2023 for possible violations, including mismanagement of funds, which could have worsened the impact of the storm.
Former Thessaly governor Costas Agorastos, who suffered a shock election defeat last month amid anger over the floods, said that since 2020 about 70 projects worth €164 million had been implemented, including cleaning waterways and strengthening dams. Some of them are not finished.
He did not comment on the investigation.
Greece’s multiple layers of bureaucracy can delay or derail projects. Just getting permission to clear the river can take years, says Giorgos Stassinos, president of the Technical Chamber of Greece, an association of engineers that acts as an advisor to the state on engineering and construction practices.
“It could take two years of red tape for a project that takes two or three months to complete,” he said, noting that local opposition on environmental grounds could lead to lengthy court battles.
Lack of government capacity is another challenge. Greece’s National Meteorological Service (EMY) does not have the necessary equipment to issue real-time flood alerts, the Greek Emergency Plan issued in October 2022 says.
Greece has launched a €2 billion program that includes the purchase of meteorological radars and a so-called “nowcasting” system that will help predict floods.
Opposition parties accused the Prime Minister Kyriakos MitsotakisThe government’s lack of political will to implement national plans to confront flood risks.
“They were all left in the drawer,” Sokratis Vamelos, head of the parliamentary group of the left-wing Syriza party, said at an environmental conference this month.
The European Commission decided on November 16 to refer Greece to the European Court of Justice for failing to submit updated flood maps after Athens missed a deadline in 2020. The Environment Ministry said it aims to deliver it by November 30, and it will include data on worsening extreme weather conditions. In recent years, without which the maps would be misleading.
“We have to change our forecasting methods,” Skylakakis said, acknowledging the rapid pace of climate change. “Instead of focusing on the past, we should look to the future.”
Greece’s building frenzy, which began in the 1950s – amid a post-war economic boom – led to chaotic urban development. It is not uncommon to see buildings on dry river beds turning into torrents during heavy rains.
The buildings dotted along the banks of the Pamisos River in Thessaly, whose courses near the town of Mouzaki have been narrowed by up to 70%, are an example of this. A medical care unit in Mozaki partially collapsed into the river in 2020; Another two-story building was swept away this year.
Thanos Giannakakis, nature-based solutions coordinator at WWF, said extreme weather had made it necessary to restore the natural environment around Greece’s rivers: “The only way out is to give space to the rivers, and reconnect them to the floodplains.”
He added that restoring riverside forests, natural meanders in waterways and dams in the mountains will all help reduce flooding.
Deputy Finance Minister Nikos Papathanasis told Reuters that Greece plans to allocate 3.2 billion euros in state and EU funds to adapt to climate change by 2027.
The Netherlands, one of the leading countries in adopting “nature-based” solutions, spent an almost equal amount of about $2.8 billion to cover 30 projects in the period 2007-2022 for its “Room for the River” programme.
This gave four rivers in the Dutch delta region the opportunity to flood safely. Measures included moving dams inland, reducing floodplains and canyons, and creating high-water canals and water storage areas.
In the wake of Storm Daniel, Greece requested assistance from Netherlands-based HVA International, an agricultural company that provides post-disaster advice.
HVA teams found poor maintenance of dams, unclean riverbeds and overlapping roles in flood defense management, CEO Miltiadis Gkouzouris told Reuters.
According to the HVA mission report, all flood defense infrastructure must be rebuilt, while crisis management protocols are needed, clearly stating responsibilities and actions to be taken.
“There is clear momentum and a need for fundamental change,” the report released last week said.
Europe needs help
Greece, the eurozone’s most indebted country by share of GDP, agreed to an additional €600 million for disaster relief measures this year.
Last September, the government announced a doubling of annual funds allocated for natural disasters from 2024 to 600 million euros, although officials admitted that this would not be enough. Mitsotakis urged the European Union to increase its solidarity fund and help countries address the impact of climate change.
With the government unable to cover all risks, Mitsotakis said in September that he eventually plans to make private flood insurance mandatory, and in the meantime will offer tax incentives starting next year for people who insure their homes.
The Greek Central Bank warned in 2011 that the economic cost of climate change would reach €700 billion by 2100, the equivalent of more than three years of economic output, if the country did not act.
The country’s leading economic research center IOBE said in a February report that adjustment measures worth 67 billion euros could reduce this loss to 510 billion euros.
But officials say the country can only do so much.
“No country in the world plans rainwater levels once every thousand years, because it will not drown in rainwater, but will drown in debt much sooner,” said Petros Varelidis, Secretary-General for Water Management at the organization. The Ministry of Environment.
(Reporting by Lefteris Papadimas, Luisa Gouliamaki and Stamos Prosalis; Writing by René Maltizo and Michel Kambas; Editing by Daniel Flynn)