Climate change and human error shrivel Greek agriculture

Thessaly, Greece – The farmers of Ampelonas in central Greece are headed for monetary smash. Last July, as a collection of heatwaves struck the nation, their electrical energy was lower off in order that they couldn’t irrigate their fields. Entire crops had been misplaced.

“From an acre of pear trees, I didn’t collect a single fruit,” stated Yiorgos Sakorrafas, president of the native farmers’ union. “Others lost alfalfa. Some harvested greatly reduced yields.”

Electricity was lower off at such a important time as a result of Ampelonas and two close by villages accrued money owed to the native water administration authority of three million euros ($3.5m). A deal they negotiated with the regional authorities to foot the invoice for that essential July irrigation fell via.

Most of the villages’ debt represents the price of electrical energy used to pump water from a centralised effectively in Mati Tyrnavou to native fields via an inefficient community of leaky pipes and ditches.

“The system is old and has fallen apart. So much water is lost on the way, that whereas our annual water bill should come to 500-550 euros ($580-$638) a hectare, it costs 800-1,000 euros ($928-$1160),” stated Sakorrafas. “If this continues, we will all be ruined.”

The issues of Ampelonas are the issues of Greece writ small. Amplelonas lies within the plain of Thessaly, the nation’s largest farming area, the place local weather change is now compounding a long time of water mismanagement and unsustainable farming practices.

Fixing Thessaly’s water mismanagement has change into pressing due to anticipated modifications in local weather. A Bank of Greece report in 2011 estimated that in a situation by which no motion was taken to fight or mitigate the consequences of local weather change, Greece would lose 2 % of its annual financial system by 2050 and 6 % by the tip of the century – a cumulative lack of greater than 700 billion euros ($815bn), three and a half occasions its gross home product.

The largest share of that price is to come back from agriculture, the report stated.

Scale of the issue

The excessive price of constructing and sustaining centralised irrigation infrastructure – dams, reservoirs, pumping stations and distribution networks – led to many initiatives being deserted throughout the a long time.

Instead, governments allowed Thessaly’s farmers to dig their very own wells and irrigate at will.

According to the federal government’s most up-to-date Thessaly Water Management Plan, solely 23 % of the plain was irrigated via water administration authorities. The remaining 77 % was a free-for-all, punctured by 33,000 wells.

Over-pumping has led to the depletion of underground aquifers. Water tables had been so low in some components of Thessaly that crops didn’t fetch sufficient revenue to pay the price of pumping, and lots of farmers deserted their plots.

According to the Department of Agriculture on the University of Thessaly, complete arable land in Greece has fallen from 3.6 million hectares to three.2 million hectares (7.9 million acres) over the last decade, a lack of 11 %. Thessaly alone has misplaced greater than 60,000 hectares (148,000 acres), representing 13 % of its arable land.

Water shortages are more likely to be compounded by drought. In a worst-case situation, the report forecast common temperatures in 2091-2100 shall be 3.9C (7F) increased in winter and spring, 4.7C (8.5F) increased in autumn and 5.4C (9.7F) increased in summer season.

Data compiled for this report by the Athens Observatory, which screens climate throughout the nation, confirmed the warmth in Thessaly was rising. Average annual temperatures in Larissa, the Thessalian capital, have risen by almost 2C (3.6F) since 1990 – from simply greater than 20C to 22C (36F to 40F).

The Bank of Greece report additionally predicted that Thessaly’s rainfall will regularly diminish by 18 % by the tip of the century.

The Athens Observatory’s information confirmed that complete annual rainfall has truly elevated since 1990, however Kostas Lagouvardos, analysis director on the Observatory, warned that not all of that rain might come down in usable kind. Part of it may take the type of excessive climate phenomena, flooding land and washing away soil.

The water drawback

The authorities estimates Thessaly’s annual water deficit at 345 million tonnes. That is how far more water is being pumped from underground aquifers than is presently being changed via rainfall. Across 4 a long time, Thessaly’s farmers have overdrawn the aquifer by an estimated three billion tonnes.

Local water administration authorities have been making an attempt to make higher use of floor water and scale back dependence on pumping. Perhaps the healthiest water administration authority within the Thessaly plain was that of Karditsa, which served 8,000 farmers on 12,000 hectares (29,700 acres). Tucked within the plain’s southwest nook towards the Pindos mountains, it has benefitted from the water of the Tavropos river, which was dammed in 1965.

The dam has made 50 million tonnes of water out there for irrigation within the important spring and summer season months, however an antiquated distribution community of open canals and concrete channels leaked water. In addition, the water couldn’t be used for environment friendly watering strategies corresponding to drip irrigation, by which perforated hoses are positioned on the bottom, as a result of it was not pressurised. It was designed to be used in large sprinklers, which the authority’s director, Thanasis Markinos, referred to as “an inefficient method incompatible with modern farming methods and best practices”.

Markinos reckoned that two-thirds of the water went to waste. “Currently, we lose more than 35 percent of water in leaks, and giant sprinklers lose 50-60 percent in evaporation,” he stated. So of the 50 million tonnes, solely about 18 million tonnes made it into the fields.

Markinos has put his authority’s engineers to work designing a high-tech community of closed, pressurised pipes and soil humidity sensors to direct water the place it’s most wanted. The atmosphere ministry has stated constructing it is going to price 900m euros ($1bn), one-fifth of which is able to come from the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Fund, and the remainder from the non-public sector. The community is predicted to begin in late 2023 and take two years.

Where the water desk is humbled, abandonment by farmers is more and more the order of the day [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

The new Karditsa community will resemble what existed on a smaller scale within the southeastern nook of the Thessaly plain. In 1988, a neighborhood prefect created a 200-hectare (500-acre) irrigation reservoir on public land. Almost a dozen extra adopted, every reservoir serving a specific village via a pressurised closed-pipe system.

Then in 2003, stress from the environmental group World Life Fund for Nature led to the recreation of Lake Karla, which was drained within the 1950s as a habitat for waterfowl. The lake was deemed full sufficient final yr to begin offering irrigation water to a number of villages.

“The last time we had a problem was 2001. Since then, the plain never went thirsty again,” stated Nikos Stathis, who grows cotton and wheat on 20 hectares (49 acres) within the village of Kastri Ayias, one of many beneficiaries of the Lake Karla system.

“If these reservoirs hadn’t been built, we would all have left. We’d be in Australia or Germany,” added his colleague, Theodoros Dalakouras, who grows cotton, alfalfa and grain on 100 hectares (247 acres).

This graph reveals complete annual rainfall in Larissa since 1990 [Athens Observatory]

‘At each other’s throats’

Kostas Kalfountzos, a farmer who did abandon the career to change into an actual property agent, remembered the drought of 2001, when a lot of the trendy system was not but in place. “Every night people were at each other’s throats in the fields, arguing over who would get an hour’s irrigation to save his crop,” he stated.

Where the water desk is humbled, abandonment has more and more been the order of the day. The village of Niki, a number of kilometres away from Kastri Ayias, for instance, was off the water grid. Some of its wells have reached a depth of some 400 metres (1,300 ft), and the aquifer beneath the village has been so depleted that the bottom has begun to subside.

Athanasios Datsios’s home lay throughout one of many rifts that undermine Niki.

One Saturday in 1998, he went out for a stroll along with his spouse. “When we returned, we saw that kitchen tiles had fallen onto the floor. We didn’t know what had happened. We stuck them back on, but gradually cracks appeared on the floor… then the ceilings started opening up, and then the walls started tearing up.”

Datsios’s living room is visibly disintegrating round him. His spouse handed away this yr, by no means having seen her home repaired, and he was gloomy about his personal prospects of outliving the decay.

Greece - Please do not use Athanasios Datsios in his crumbling home [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

Losing the soil

Nikos Danalatos, professor of sustainable agriculture on the University of Thessaly, stated water mismanagement was just one facet of intensive agriculture destroying the land.

Much of Thessaly consists of hills, which had been lined in forest till a few century in the past. He stated tilling these inclines with heavy equipment breaks down the soil’s natural matter – decomposing or decayed crops that present vitamins, stabilise soil construction and assist it retain water.

Leaving fields naked in winter made the issue worse, he stated, as a result of raindrops acted as tiny centrifuges on naked soil, spinning out its smallest particles and leaving sand and rock.

Both the chemical and bodily breakdown of the soil have led to its erosion in Thessaly, and eventual desertification, Danalatos stated.

“In these areas, 20-30 centimetres (7.9 – 11.8 inches) of soil are left, compared to a metre at the beginning of the 20th century. If they are not protected, if they are not properly cultivated, with crop rotation and the maintenance of some vegetation during winter, we will lose more and more of them. We’re currently losing about 20,000 hectares a year, and a total of 900,000 hectares (2.2 million acres) since 1980,” he stated.

The motion of latest rainfall was seen on naked fields, the place rivulets dug furrows within the soil or carried lighter particles of soil downhill.

Danalatos stated synthetic fertiliser and mechanisation briefly produced increased yields after World War II, disguising the issues they had been creating.

“The actual fertility of fields went up, but the potential fertility was falling,” he stated. “At some point, in the 1990s, these two trends met. I would say to farmers, ‘you’re losing fertility’. And they’d say, ‘What are you talking about? Our yields are increasing’. When actual and potential fertility met, they both fell in lockstep. And farmers would say, ‘What’s going on? I’m using more fertiliser, I’m using more water, and yields are falling’. That is when desertification showed its teeth.”

Danalatos stated these developments are reversible by sowing legumes in winter, which add nitrogen to the soil, and ploughing the crops into the soil after they flower in spring, to revive misplaced natural matter.

Experiments he has carried out throughout the previous 10 years counsel fields sustainably farmed on this means scale back water consumption by half, enhance yields by greater than half, and dispose of expensive synthetic fertiliser altogether.

Asked why Thessaly’s farmers haven’t adopted these strategies, he stated, “I’ve talked about it in conferences. No one is interested.”

Greece - Please do not useRainfall causes erosion on naked soil however leaves lined soil undisturbed [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

Fixing the issue

The authorities has been weighing in to re-educate farmers, prolong irrigation networks, and shut down wells. During the subsequent seven years, the agriculture ministry shall be armed with a once-in-a-century conflict chest of 22 billion euros ($26bn) from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and the post-COVID Resilience and Recovery Fund.

“Our basic goal is to create a new attitude among farmers of respect towards the environment,” stated Agriculture Minister Spilios Livanos in written feedback to Al Jazeera.

Livanos stated his ministry has helped discovered six new vocational faculties educating agricultural programs, and he was pondering of increasing environmental consciousness via secondary schooling, as effectively.

Also among the many ministry’s targets is to pour cash into infrastructure that can assist preserve and retailer water.

A twin dam undertaking begun within the 1990s to divert 250 million tonnes of water from the Acheloos river in western Greece to Thessaly is being revived. The undertaking was struck down in court docket six occasions because of considerations concerning the environmental impression of the diversion on the Acheloos valley and delicate delta ecosystem. One dam was constructed, however its reservoir was by no means crammed. A second is half-built.

“The government has committed to look into the issues of a partial diversion of the Acheloos,” stated Konstantinos Aravosis, common secretary for the atmosphere and water sources on the atmosphere ministry. “The transfer of water from the Acheloos to Thessaly will reduce the severity of Thessaly’s water problem,” he informed Al Jazeera. Aravosis anticipated the dams to be working in 5 to 6 years.

Some have been sceptical about how a lot any authorities can do.

Konstantinos Goumas was a younger agriculture graduate within the mid-1980s when he helped design a dam to be constructed near his native Elassona in northwest Thessaly. Work started in 2000. When it ended six years later, solely the dam’s spillway and toe drain tunnel had been constructed. Elassona’s farmers have relied on their very own wells.

“I don’t think there was any shortage of funds to complete the dam,” stated Goumas, who has spent a lot of his life advocating for higher water infrastructure. “The project just got lost in the state bureaucracy.”

The Thessaly Water Management Plan nonetheless depends on 120 million tonnes of water to come back from yet-to-be-designed infrastructure.

Goumas, who heads the Committee for the Solution of Thessaly’s Water Problem, spoke to the federal government specialists who had drafted the plan.

“They said we’d build reservoirs. When we asked where they would place them, they had no idea. You have to have a plan for where the water will come from to fill the ponds, and how it will reach the farms.”

Livanos was mild on the main points of his anti-desertification plan, however his thrust was clear.

“Climate change, which is now a climate crisis, involves us all. There is no room for inaction,” he stated. “The green transition is now a necessity.”

Greece [Please do not use]Agriculturalist Kostas Goumas measures the depth of furrows attributable to rain falling on a barren area [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]