Fires and floods in Greece highlight Europe’s weak climatic defences

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View of the still-flooded agriculture equipment in the village of Vlohos, two months after devastating storm flooded the area November 6, 2023. Greece faces an uphill battle to cope with the growing impacts of climate change. REUTERS/Louisa Gouliamaki

Dimitris Kouretas, elected governor of Greece’s central province of Thessaly last month in the wake of calamitous floods, struggles to sleep at night.

The flooding in September – Greece’s worst on record – devastated the fertile region, swept away agricultural land, roads and railways, and killed 16 people. It was the second major flood in three years to hit Thessaly, part of a pattern of worsening extreme weather in Europe.

Kouretas reels off a list of flood protection projects left unfinished by previous governments, including reservoirs to retain water in the mountains, the dredging of riverbeds, and the removal of debris from previous floods. Some have been stalled for as long as 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 that his administration will be judged on its ability to cope with the next flood: “If you don’t plan based on climate change adaptation … 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 with a rapid increase in extreme weather, held back by factors including bureacracy, inaction and ineffective 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 with reducing its greenhouse emissions and boosting renewables 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 multi-billion-dollar funds needed to build resilience against 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 hazards grew, including in the eastern Mediterranean. Global funding shortfalls for adaptation are of the order of $194-366 billion, it estimated.

“The climate crisis is coming faster than predicted,” Environment Minister Theodore Skylakakis said, adding the scale of the issue had been underestimated at a European level. “These are pan-European questions… 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 edition of the annual U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP 28) that opens on Nov. 30 in Dubai.

SHORTCOMINGS

Storm Daniel dumped the equivalent of 18 months of rain on Thessaly between Sept. 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 sq km, an area roughly the size of Los Angeles.

It marked the end of a heatwave, one of Greece’s longest in decades, which had already wreaked havoc with deadly wildfires.

Neither floods nor fires are new to Greece but with climate change, they are becoming a frequent disruptor to an economy dependent on tourism and farming.

The damage caused by Storm Daniel – estimated at over 2 billion euros according to a report by Dutch post-disaster advisors HVA International – has sparked an investigation into whether authorities did enough to prevent the disaster.

A Sept. 13 prosecutor’s order, reviewed by Reuters, showed judges in Thessaly are investigating local authorities’ actions in 2020-2023 for potential violations, including mismanagement of funds, that could have aggravated the storm’s impact.

Former Thessaly governor Kostas Agorastos, who suffered a shock defeat in last month’s election amid anger over the flooding, said that since 2020 around 70 projects have been undertaken worth 164 million euros, including cleaning up streams and reinforcing embankments. Some of them have not been finished.

He did not comment on the investigation.

Greece’s multiple layers of bureaucracy can delay or derail projects. Just the permissioning for clearing a river can take years, says Giorgos Stasinos, head of the Technical Chamber of Greece, an engineers’ association that acts as an advisor to the state on engineering and construction practices.

“It could be two years in red tape for a project that takes two or three months to complete,” he said, noting that local opposition on environmental grounds can result in lengthy court battles.

Lack of government capacity has been another challenge. Greece’s national meteorological service (EMY) does not have the equipment to issue real-time flood alerts, Greece’s emergency plan issued in October 2022 says.

Greece has launched a 2 billion euro programme which includes the purchase of meteorological radars and a so-called ‘nowcasting’ system that will help forecast floods.

Opposition parties have accused Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ government of lacking the political will to implement national plans for flood risks.

“They are all left in a drawer,” the head of the leftist Syriza party parliamentary group, Sokratis Famellos, said this month at an environmental conference.

The European Commission decided on Nov. 16 to refer Greece to the EU Court of Justice for failing to provide updated flood maps after Athens missed a 2020 deadline. The environment ministry said it aims to deliver them by Nov. 30 and would include data on the worsening extreme weather of recent years, without which the maps risked being misleading.

“We have to change our prediction methods,” Skylakakis said, acknowledging the rapid pace of climate change. “Instead of focusing on the past, we must look at the future.”

DUTCH MODEL

A building frenzy in Greece that started in the 1950s – amid a post-war economic boom – led to chaotic urban development. It is not uncommon to see buildings on dried-up river beds which turn into torrents in heavy rain.

The buildings dotting the banks of Thessaly’s Pamisos river, whose riverbed has been narrowed near the town of Mouzaki by as much as 70%, is a case in point. A medical care unit in Mouzaki partially collapsed into the river in 2020; another two-storey building was swept away this year.

Thanos Giannakakis, WWF’s Nature-Based Solutions Coordinator, said extreme weather made it vital to restore the natural environment around Greece’s rivers’: “the only way out is to give rivers space, to reconnect them with flood plains”.

The restoration of riverside forests, natural meanders in waterways and weirs in the mountains would all help diminish flooding, he said.

Greece plans to devote 3.2 billion euros of state and EU funds on climate resilience by 2027, Deputy Finance Minister Nikos Papathanasis told Reuters.

Netherlands, a leading adopter of “nature-based” solutions, spent a roughly equal amount of about $2.8 billion dollars to encompass 30 projects in 2007-2022 for its “Room for the River” programme.

It gave four rivers in the Dutch delta space to flood safely. Measures included relocating dykes inland, lowering of floodplains and groynes, creating high-water channels and water storage areas.

Following Storm Daniel, Greece sought help from Netherlands-based HVA International, an agricultural firm that offers post-disaster advice.

HVA teams found poor dyke maintenance, uncleaned riverbeds and overlapping roles in flood defence management, its CEO Miltiadis Gkouzouris told Reuters.

According to HVA’s mission report, all flood defense infrastructure has to be rebuilt while protocols for crisis management, clearly stipulating responsibilities and actions to be taken, are needed.

“There is a clear momentum and need for fundamental change,” said the report, released last week.

EUROPE’S HELP NEEDED

Greece, the most indebted nation in the euro zone in terms of share of GDP, approved an additional 600 million euros for disaster relief measures this year.

The government announced in September a doubling of the annual funds set aside for natural disasters from 2024 to 600 million euros, though officials acknowledge it will not be enough. Mitsotakis has urged the EU to top up its solidarity fund and help countries tackle the impact of climate change.

With the government unable to cover all the risks, Mitsotakis said in September it plans eventually to make private flood insurance mandatory and will, in the meantime, offer tax incentives from next year to people who insure their homes.

Greece’s central bank warned in 2011 the economic cost of climate change will hit 700 billion euros by 2100, equivalent to more than three years of economic output, if the country does 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 only so much the country can do.

“No country in the world is planning for once-in-1,000-year rain water levels because it wouldn’t be drowning in rain water, it would be drowning in debt much sooner,” said Petros Varelidis, Secretary General for Water Management at the Environment Ministry.

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