Jacques Ganoulis, Special Secretary for Water, Ministry of Environment and Energy, Greece: Exclusive Interview
Greece suffers from ‘imported floods’, says its international lead on water issues – for river management in one country affects all those downstream. So solving the problem, says Jacques Ganoulis, demands close cooperation with Greece’s upstream neighbours
“What measures do you take to deal with the force of nature?” asks Jacques Ganoulis, Special Secretary for Water at Greece’s Ministry of Environment and Energy – and the man responsible for handling flood risks across Greece. It sounds like an impossible question to answer; but as Ganoulis explains, much of the damage caused by floods can be traced back to human interventions. And if people have created a problem, then we can also solve it.
Take the 480km Evros River: the longest river in the Balkan Peninsula, which rises as the Maritsa in Bulgaria and passes through Turkey – where it’s named the Meriç – before arriving in Greece and discharging into the Thracian Sea. The Evros floods parts of Greece twice or even three times each year – causing damage to agriculture, roads and homes that has cost the country about 300m euros over the last decade.
“Floods are hugely dependent on nature, but agriculture and the use of land also play a key role,” explains Ganoulis. Under a 1934 agreement between Greece and Turkey, since the ‘50s both countries have hemmed the river in behind a network of dykes – protecting individual settlements and releasing fertile land for agricultural use, but narrowing the river channel and destroying the flood plains that used to soak up excess water during the winters. Meanwhile, deforestation in the surrounding hills has reduced their ability to hold rainfall, increasing the amount of water entering the river: “Over the past years large tracts of forest for heating purposes have been logged,” says Ganoulis. “And in many cases, the river surface height is kept high in order to use the excess water for irrigation in the summer.”
Ganoulis’s biggest problem in addressing these challenges is that more than 90% of the Evros’s river basin lies outside Greece: the country, he says, suffers from “imported floods”. So the solutions must lie in working with Greece’s neighbours; and he has high hopes of the EU’s Interreg V-A Greece-Bulgaria 2014-2020 Cooperation Programme, which draws on the EU’s 359m euro ‘Interreg’ funding pot dedicated to solving cross-border problems. “Progress has been made and the tables have turned… Now the political, ministerial will is stronger and we also have EU funding,” he says. “We are hopeful that significant amendments will take shape under the new Interreg programme between Greece and Bulgaria.”
He’s been waiting for action a long time: Professor Ganoulis has 35 years of experience in the integrated and trans-boundary management of water resources. He founded non-governmental organisation the International Network of Water/Environment Centres for the Balkans, and currently holds posts as Emeritus Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki; Doctor of Science at France’s University Paul Sabatier in Toulouse; and Visiting Professor at the Universities of Erlangen in Germany, McGill in Canada, Melbourne in Australia and Paris VI in France. Since taking up his civil service job and becoming Greece’s international representative on water management issues in May 2015, he’s been focusing on how to turn growing international cooperation into the concrete achievement of reducing flooding – and as far as the Evros is concerned, he’s seen real progress.
“2017 will be the first year that real strategic management of the Evros will take place,” he says. “Think about the Danube, which has one commission for all issues. That’s what will happen with the Evros too.” This unitary, transnational river commission will, he explains, make decisions on managing the watercourse whilst introducing a flood early-warning system, improving local fire brigades’ equipment and skills, and creating citizen training centres along the river’s course.
The lessons from this progress on water management, Ganoulis believes, must be learned in managing wider environmental issues such as climate change. He points to the first EU Energy Strategy, which set out a series of targets to be achieved between 2007 and 2020: 20% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and energy use, and for renewable sources to produce 20% of energy supply. “Member states must strictly adhere to the EU policies,” says Ganoulis. “On our behalf, this is guaranteed.”
In this corner of the EU, then, coordinated action on environmental issues has been strengthening. In August Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras signed a joint declaration with his Bulgarian counterpart, Boyko Borisov, pledging to deepen cooperation on issues including energy, tourism, research & technology, and the migrant crisis. At a time of political and social instability, they said, Greece and Bulgaria must hold fast and steadily strengthen cooperative working.
In November, though, Borisov’s party received an electoral drubbing at the hands of a political newcomer sympathetic to Russia, and the PM announced his resignation; the country is set to hold new elections in the spring. Against this shifting political background, work on the Evros project will continue; yet a looming shift of political leadership in Bulgaria must raise questions over the commitment of this key partner. As Ganoulis is learning, dealing with the force of nature is tricky, but managing the consequences of today’s political instability is a still harder task.
For up to date government news and international best practice follow us on Twitter @globegov