Acheloos River Diversion Project, Greece, Greece

Irrigation water for cotton crops

Nearly 80 years after it was first proposed, the massively controversial greater Acheloos diversion scheme continues to prove as contentious as ever.

Set to cause enormous changes to the region, the scheme has been no stranger to legal manoeuvrings by both supporters and critics alike. It intended to divert water to irrigate between 240,000ha and 380,000ha of Thessaly's cotton crops but was judged 'illegal' in 2000 on the grounds that it violated international legislation on preserving cultural heritage and both Greek and EU legislation on water management.

In 2006, however, the project was declared to be 'in the national interest', side-stepping the prior ruling.

"Nearly 80 years after it was first proposed, the massively controversial greater Acheloos diversion scheme continues to prove as contentious as ever."

In October 2009, the Supreme Administrative Court of Greece sent a request to The Court of Justice of European Union (ECJ) in Luxembourg to foresee the legality of Acheloos River diversion project.

Discussions on the case in the ECJ were started in May 2011. Local authorities and environmental groups claimed that the project would have a negative impact on the ecosystems, water levels and landscapes. The project has been put on hold since February 2010.

The full scheme calls for the construction of a major diversion channel, two tunnels, a water intake system, sluice gates and surge shafts. It will also incorporate a hydroelectric project, with a series of large dams being built by the Public Power Corporation (DEH).

In addition to the main infrastructure, service tunnels and access roads will also be needed, which will inevitably have a significant effect on the forest eco-systems of the area, both during the constructional and operational phases of the project.

The project's original funding comprised an anticipated €450m from EU CSF and Rural Development sources, with contributions from other sources including the national budget.

However, the exact costs are not known. Construction has been estimated at €720m, with the total expenditure being put at between €3 and €4.5bn more than ten years ago.

Irrigation for cotton cultivation

Although Thessaly is a region naturally rich in water, historic mismanagement of its resources coupled with the widespread cultivation of cotton have led to serious supply problems.

Unregulated bore drilling for irrigation has caused depletion and increased salinity of the groundwater, a situation further exacerbated by the wasteful irrigation methods used.

Acheloos River flows from the Pindos Mountains in the centre of Greece, westwards to the Ionian Sea and is separated from the Thessaly plain by the southern end of the mountain range. The plan to divert the river eastwards to irrigate the growing crops, boosting agricultural production in the depressed economy of rural Greece, was first conceived in the 1930s. A lack of funding halted its implementation.

Although a number of dams were built along the Acheloos in the intervening decades for HEP schemes, the diversion project itself remained stalled until 1984, when the government expressed its renewed intention to proceed.

The final plan devised for the Acheloos diversion project to include the construction of major dams and associated reservoirs at Mesochora, Sykia, Mouzaki and Pyli, together with the 17,400m-long Sykia diversion channel to Thessaly, the Mesochora-Glystra tunnel and the long Pyli-Mouzaki tunnel. This system of dams, reservoirs and tunnels is designed ultimately to take an estimated 600 million m³ of water from the Acheloos Rivers to the other side of the Pindos mountains.

Opposition to the Acheloos scheme

Although the economic arguments for the diversion were once very strong, a number of things have changed since the diversion scheme had first been envisaged. In 1988, the Ministry of National Economy commissioned Morgan Grenfell to perform a cost benefit analysis on the project.

This study concluded that even assuming the tight schedules then proposed were met, the financial viability of the project was marginal.

Despite changes to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the EU's explicit reduction in financial support for agricultural growth, the Greek Government approved the Environmental Impact Assessment for the Sykia and Mesochora dams two years later. Later that year, formal applications were made for CSF and Rural Development funding of the project.

In addition, the growing climate of greater environmental awareness and increasingly stringent legislation made the whole issue far more contentious than it had been when first envisaged.

The Acheloos Valley and the Delta are listed as special protection areas under the EU Birds Directive 79/409/EEC, along with much of the Southern Pindos. They were also designated for inclusion in the national NATURA 2000 list.

In addition, the Acheloos delta forms the Messolongi lagoons, a complex of wetland habitats constituting one of 11 Ramsar sites in Greece.

The middle and upper reaches of the Acheloos have been identified as the most important Greek habitat for the Salmo trutta trout, a protected species under Annex II of the EU Habitats Directive. As this fish swims upstream to spawn, the construction of large dams along its natural route is likely to have a major impact on the resident breeding population.

A number of other fish species indigenous to the river are also protected by the EU Habitats Directive, and many of the neighbouring areas naturally sustained by the river's flow are also widely accepted as being of exceptional ecological significance.

The dams and reduced flows will change the habitats of a number of endangered and internationally protected species irreversibly and others will suffer serious disturbance both during and after the construction work. The Ramsar site at Messolongi will suffer from a critical reduction in freshwater input, which will fundamentally alter its character.

It has also been suggested that the extensive excavations will increase soil erosion and the likelihood of landslides. In addition, the scheme will have a number of socio-economic and cultural impacts, including the destruction of important monuments, principally the 11th century monastery of St George of Myrophyllo.

Unsurprisingly, the project quickly drew major opposition. In 1992, a pan-European campaign began led by the Greek branch of the World Wide Fund for nature (WWF), the Hellenic Ornithological Society, Elliniki Etairia and the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature. A number of other European environmental organisations also provided support. As a result, the EU rejected the project's application for funding.

In 1994, the Council of State (CoS) issued a restraining order against the project contractors suspending all construction works until an integrated and scientifically sound environmental impact assessment (EIA) had been prepared. This was further supported by a recommendation from the Permanent Committee of the Bern Convention, which made a formal protest to the EU Environment Directorate (DGXI) a year later over the Greek Government's non-compliance.

In April 2009, the country's six main conservation groups issued a joint statement opposing efforts of the Environment and Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias to divert the water of the Acheloos River in western Greece to the heavily farmed Thessaly Plain. They accused the government of squandering dwindling water reserves and funds.

WWF Hellas, Greenpeace and other groups opposed Souflias' claims that the project would solve Thessaly's irrigation problem and argued instead that it would: "become an alibi for the continuation of the catastrophic water management and unacceptable agricultural practices that have been undermining the Thessaly Plain for years."

Souflias had christened the project as 'environmentally sound' but the European Commission (EC) had refused to fund the diversion since 1994. Souflias described the conservationists' claims as 'inaccurate and unsubstantiated'.

Project viability

On 23 September 1994, the CoS issued its decisions and annulled the ministerial decisions for the implementation of the project. The national and community environmental legislation had gained a great deal from this decision.

The Greek Government reacted by continuing the construction on the Messochora dam, tunnel and HEPP in defiance of the CoS ruling.

The environment impact assessment (EIA) works were assigned to four technical companies by YPEHODE. The EIA report was prepared in three months. The project was cut into smaller parts.

The Pyli and Moutaki dams were withdrawn, and the projected quantity of diverted water was reduced to 600-700 mu per m³ per year. The Thessaly farmers were not informed that, by this reduced quantity of water to-be-diverted, not a single extra hectare would be irrigated beyond the roughly 240,000 hectares already irrigated, which the government admitted later.

The Return on investment (ROI) and the viability of the new version were questioned. A cost-benefit analysis of the diversion project was not done.

The project continues

However, construction continued with national finance and, in 1995, the scheme's environmental terms received renewed ministerial approval.

"However, the exact costs are not known. Construction has been estimated at €720m, with the total expenditure being put at between €3 and €4.5bn more than ten years ago."

The environmental groups again took the matter before the CoS and, in March 1999, another restraining order was issued. Work ceased and new environmental terms for the project were prepared ahead of the formal hearing, which took place in the following November.

A year later, in November 2000, the CoS cancelled the joint ministerial approval of the environmental conditions for the project, ruling it illegal, since no suitable alternatives had been examined.

Although the second CoS restraining order halted work for almost two years, the Thessalian farmers lobbied intensively throughout this time for it to restart. Late in 2001, the Ministry of Finance announced the allocation of nearly €210m from the national budget to continue the construction and the project was effectively revived.

Subsequently, the old EIA was refreshed, the necessary new administrative approvals were issued and work on the scheme started again in May 2003.

By early 2004, it had stopped once more and it is unclear whether the project will be completed, although the scheme remained firmly on the political agenda. In July 2006, the Environment Minister, George Souflias, successfully argued that the project was of national interest and after a lengthy debate, the Greek parliament voted through legal amendments to allow it to proceed.

However, support was not unanimous - the Coalition of the Left Movements and Ecology (Synaspismos) opposing the changes - and the environmental campaigns continue, leaving the controversy set to rumble on, at least for the moment.

In the final analysis, the economic viability of the project - which is designed to boost agricultural output in the region - depends on cotton farming.

With cotton subsidies being seriously questioned in terms of the EU reformed common agricultural policy framework and widely expected to be phased out in the coming years, the future of both is far from clear.

Key players

The project is sponsored by the Ministry of Environment, Regional Planning and Public Works, with the Greek DEH building and running the hydroelectric scheme. The diversion tunnel contract was awarded to Impregilo-Gnomon-Tegk consortium. Morgan Grenfell acted as financial consultants to the Greek Government and Coopers & Lybrand for the EU.

Prometheus Gas are responsible for the engineering, installation and commissioning at Sykia and Pefkofyto HEP plants, with other contractors including Itia, Kalaouzis, Electrowatt, Marinos and Koutsoyiannis.

A number of national and international environmental organisations oppose the scheme, including WWF, Greenpeace, RSPB and the European Environmental Bureau.