ATHENS – When deadly fires struck Greece this summer during a record heatwave, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis quickly said that climate change was largely to blame before adding there were other reasons.
It was the same when deadly floods followed, Greece’s twin disaster highlighting how the phenomenon of climate change has essentially been left to get worse around the world with governments passing only token measures to deal with it.
And what Greece’s bad summer of fires and floods also showed, said Reuters in a feature, was that the government wasn’t alone in being unable to deal with it, the European Union also unable or unwilling to really cope.
The floods wiped out a swath of Greece’s agricultural heartland of central Thessaly, further spiking already high food shortages and the government blamed for failing to ensure municipalities given funds for flood control used it properly.
Dimitris Kouretas, elected Governor of the region said the damage was so great that it destroyed lands, roads and railways and was the second in three years to strike there, with a pattern developing of worsening weather.
He told the news agency that a series of governments had failed to do almost anything to mitigate the damage from floods, reacting initially in the wake of criticism before backing off and leaving the problems to fester again.
That included not dredging riverbeds, removing debris from previous floods, having measures against rising waters during heavy rains and not building reservoirs for the overflow.
Set to take office in January, he told Reuters that he knows 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,” he said.
Reuters said interviews with 12 disaster experts, government officials and environmentalists and a review of Greek court records and EU reports showed the country’s breakdown in dealing with extreme weather.
That included the notoriously bogged-down and snail’s pace bureaucracy, inaction and not implementing climate change adaptation techniques despite the lessons of previous floods, the news agency said.
It noted that the New Democracy government in 2020 made many of the same promises to deal with climate change and flood, those soon forgotten and swept away like debris in turbulent waters.
Greece is not alone, of course, in the losing fight against climate change as a series of international conferences led to only window dressing ideas designed to fail because they weren’t effective and have proved to be inept.
Greece had made strides to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move toward alternative and sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar power – both abundant but largely untapped.
But the government had to return to using coal-fired plants it was phasing out, forced to do so in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which caused turmoil in energy markets, Greece and the EU relying on Russian supplies.
BAD WATERS RISING
“The climate crisis is coming faster than predicted,” Environment Minister Theodore Skylakakis said, adding that the EU had also failed to estimate how bad it would be despite constant warnings from scientists and environmentalists.
“These are pan-European questions… We are the first to experience them. But sooner or later we will all face them,” he told Reuters, without adding the question of whether it would be too late and after more floods and fires.
Climate adaptation is a theme of this year’s edition of the annual U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP 28) that opens Nov. 30 in Dubai, the previous sessions falling by the wayside to do much in conflicts, leaving reliance on petroleum.
Storm Daniel in Greece in September brought Biblical scale rains and waters covering big parts of Thessaly, worries that the land would be infertile for years and wiping out farmers.
The floods covered more than 1,100 square kilometers (424.71 square miles) an area roughly the size of Los Angeles and caused some 2 billion euros ($2.19 billion) and left the government to put up huge subsidies for losses that were far costlier than mitigating the effect of the floods.
It also has led to an investigation into how it happened although Greece has a history of announcing probes that soon are forgotten and often don’t lead to any answers or resolution.
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 worsened the storm’s impact.
Former Thessaly Governor Kostas Agorastos, who was swept out of office after the waters receded, people angry about what happened, said since 2020 around 70 projects at a cost of 164 million euros ($179.51) had been implemented.
He said those included cleaning up streams and reinforcing embankments but acknowledged that some hadn’t been finished in the ensuing three years and would not comment on the investigation.
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, blamed bureaucracy.
“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.
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 said, adding to the problem of giving warnings.
Greece has now launched a 2 billion euro ($2.19 billion) program which includes the purchase of meteorological radars and a so-called “nowcasting,” system that will help forecast floods, the news agency said.
Opposition parties accused Mitsotakis’ government of lacking the political will to implement national plans for flood risks. “They are all left in a drawer,” Sokratis Famellos, head of the major opposition SYRIZA told environmentalists.
The European Commission on Nov. 16 referred Greece to the EU Court of Justice for failing to provide updated flood maps after Athens missed a 2020 deadline. Which the Environment Ministry said would be done by Nov. 30.
STORM FRONT COMING
That, it said, would include data on the worsening extreme weather of recent years, without which the maps risked being misleading, but deadlines are often movable in Greece, even those set by the EU, which rarely enforces them.
“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,” he added.
Exacerbating the problem in Greece has been decades of unchecked and often unlawful construction that was also blamed for the death toll in July, 2018 wildfires that killed 103 people.
That included in the seaside village of Mati northeast of Athens in which many victims were unable to reach the nearby waters because of haphazard building that created a rabbit’s warren of an impassable labyrinth in the smoke.
It was the same in Thessaly, the news report said, including along the banks of the Pamisos River that was narrowed near the town by Mouzaki as much as 70 percent and has seen buildings swept away by floods.
Thanos Giannakakis, WWF’s Nature-Based Solutions Coordinator, told Reuters that extreme weather made it vital to restore the natural environment around Greece’s rivers. He said it was, “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, recommendations governments have largely failed to follow.
Greece plans to devote 3.2 billion euros ($3.5 billion) of state and EU funds on climate resilience by 2027, Deputy Finance Minister Nikos Papathanasis told the news agency, the measures coming after the disaster.
Greece, the most indebted nation in the Eurozone in terms of share of Gross Domestic Product, facing years of repayments for 326 billion euros ($356.84 billion) in international bailouts, has blamed lack of money for its problems.
The New Democracy government announced in September a doubling of the annual funds set aside for natural disasters from 2024 to 600 million euros ($656.74 million) but admitted it’s not enough, although the economy is accelerating faster now.
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 for people to do so.
Greece’s central bank warned in 2011 the economic cost of climate change will hit 700 billion euros ($766.21 billion) 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, without mentioning the previous floods.