The Aegean islands are parched. Breaking the dependency on imported water will take more than the will of eco-conscious residents.
Alexandros Petropoulos pauses as he surveys the miles of pipeline arrayed in front of him, reflecting on what it took to get here. It’s late 2020, and the Greek island of Aegina has exhausted its once-bountiful water. Thousands of second homes have sprung up along its shores since the 1980s. Hundreds of thousands more tourists from nearby Athens pour in every year to see its ancient temple. Amid ever-growing demand and continuing loss of supply, Aegina effectively ran dry by the end of the millennium.
The pipeline would be the solution, steadily flushing in water from the mainland. Because residents currently rely on bottled water for drinking, an added benefit would be alleviating Aegina’s expensive addiction to plastic. When construction finally began in 2018 after decades of bureaucratic stalling, residents and municipal officials were buoyant. “This is by far the longest, deepest and most ambitious pipeline project ever undertaken in Greece,” says Petropoulos, a civil engineer and the project manager in charge of laying the line across a 15-mile (24 kilometer) stretch of the Aegean. “What you see here is as perfect a solution to Aegina’s problems as one could possibly devise.”
But in the early hours of Jan. 30, 2020, eight weeks before it was to start operating, the project met disaster. That night, a saboteur motored out to where the plastic pipes were anchored off Salamina, an adjacent island, and punctured them in 31 places with a household drill. By the time workmen discovered the damage the following morning, the project had been knocked months behind schedule. “Years’ worth of work was destroyed in one night by something you can find in your kitchen,” says Petropoulos.
Having come so close to realizing their ambition, islanders are furious. But after years in which water shortages in the Aegean have made a small circle of powerful people very rich, few were surprised. “Sometimes ‘accidents’ just come up,” says Dimitris Tsibouris, a former head of Aegina’s port police. Petropoulos himself says he has suspicions about who was responsible, since “the pipeline is a threat to business.”
As global water crises go, Greece’s might appear low stakes. Taps still flow, the swimming pools still shimmer. Visitors seldom get a hint of severe shortages, even on the most parched islands. That veneer, however, conceals paralyzing tradeoffs to keep Greece’s most important industry afloat. Once largely self-sufficient, many of its 200 or so islands have all but exhausted aquifers in order to provide for millions of tourists, instead turning to mountains of plastic.
On an island like Santorini, which welcomed more than 3 million tourists in 2019, each visitor consumes an average of nine 1.5 liter bottles per stay. On Patmos, a wealthy island near Turkey, a single bakery can use 500 1.5 liter bottles a day just to produce orange cake, a local specialty. Between year-round residents and an annual tourist population that has, at times, surpassed Greece’s own three times over, the Aegean islands go through tens of millions of water bottles a year — a habit that has transformed whitewashed seaside communities into some of the planet’s biggest consumers of plastic. Per-capita consumption of bottled water in Greece is among the European Union’s highest, according to Natural Mineral Waters Europe. It’s significantly greater on the islands than in the country at large, where tap water is mostly potable.
This dependence is devastating. Much of Greece’s plastic is making its way into its emerald waters and tainting marine life. The connection between plastic pollution and climate change has been well established, and the scourge of microplastics on the planet’s water is among the topics under discussion this week at the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. As much as 45% of fish in the Aegean contain microplastics, according to a Turkish study. Some fishermen no longer dine on their own catch.
At the same time, this crisis has forced the cash-strapped Greek state to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer euros on tanker vessels whose private operators — “nerouládes,” in Greek, or water men — ship mainland water that most islanders see as too contaminated with salt or sediment to drink. Ultimately, that may be the least of the economic fallout. Tourists are starting to notice the Mediterranean’s increasingly plastic-choked waters. Consequences would be devastating were they to seek cleaner shores.
Greece is far from alone in its struggle with bottled water.
Global plastic consumption is booming, with the volume dumped in the ocean projected to rise to 29 million tons from 11 million tons by 2040, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. We collectively consume over half a trillion bottles of water a year. In the Mediterranean, the equivalent of 33,800 enters the sea every minute, according to the World Wildlife Fund, contributing to its emergence as one of the world’s most microplastic-infested bodies of water.
Greeks also have plenty of company in their battle with plastic’s environmental and health fallouts. Just this year, studies found microplastics deep in the soil, in the atmosphere, in human organs — even on the summit of Mount Everest. Covid-19 has revitalized the plastics industry, which successfully lobbied against anti-single-use-plastics measures in several U.S states. It even had success persuading the Trump administration to introduce plastic-friendly policies.
Greek authorities insist they’re aware of the problem. They’ve taken preliminary steps to wean the islands onto more sustainable water sources, such as by constructing desalination plants and pipelines. They’ve also cracked down on the water men, whose grip continues to weaken. (The Greek Ministry for the Environment and Energy did not respond to requests for comment.)
Islanders say this hasn’t been enough. No sooner are many desalination plants built than they begin to crumble, the result of inept island municipalities. Other facilities remain stalled for years by red tape.
“I still get a call from the nerouládes every month,” says Nektarios Santorinios, a member of Parliament and former deputy minister of maritime affairs and insular policy. “I know that they were sabotaging desalination projects through the state bureaucracy.”
Greece is a microcosm of the difficulty — and urgency — of better solutions. With a 77% drop in tourists in 2020 and much reduced numbers through 2021, many islanders are asking whether irreversible destruction of their environment is worth the quick gains.
The first thing visitors to the island of Kalymnos notice is the stench. For more than 20 years, a landfill on the southeast shore has spewed harsh fumes from piles of burning trash. Frequent collapses have disgorged reams of bottles into the sea and the smoke has saddled neighbors with severe respiratory complaints. It embarrasses locals. “No one is happy with this,” said Vasileios Lappas, a shopkeeper in the village of Panormos, about 4 miles away. “When the wind begins to blow this way, then comes the smell.”
Sitting in his waterfront office, the mayor says his island has no choice but to burn its waste. “There’s nowhere to put it,” Dimitrios Diakomihalis claims. True or not, Kalymnos’s trash crisis has become a potent expression of the Aegean’s bottle addiction.
It wasn’t always like this. Older generations can still remember when rooftop cisterns satisfied their needs. Tourism upended everything. With visitors descending on once-sleepy fishing villages, desperate officials began using tankers in the 1980s. Soon these water men and their distinctive flat-topped ships became a fixture on almost every Aegean island. “By the year 2000, the needs of the islands had really intensified,” says Christos Iliakidis, a retired water man. “Mykonos, Syros, Tinos — all the prosperity you see in those places now, most of it from tourism, would have been impossible without men like me.”
Even 40 years ago, few were happy with this arrangement. Many spurn the nerouládes’ water, and purchase bottles from Athens, shelling out hundreds of euros more on average than their mainland counterparts. The water men frequently delay deliveries by days, which some see as a bargaining ploy, though the operators counter that they’re captive to weather and timely payments. Costing as much as 27,000 euros a boatload, these deliveries became exceedingly expensive for the state, too. Unwilling to allow tourist havens to run dry, the Greek government was on the hook year after year for millions of euros in island water fees, even as alternatives emerged, such as affordable desalination.
In 2015, as the tourist influx and costs reached prohibitive levels, Greece’s debt-ridden government finally acted. While the status quo was wasteful, the alternative was every bit as unattractive to powerful island municipalities. The state covers their nerouláde costs, but local governments would be required to levy extra taxes to pay for electricity to desalinate water. Through willful neglect and bureaucratic foot-dragging, mayors across the Aegean sank many of the state’s plans. “We’re not talking about one island here,” says Alexandros Yfantis, the founder of Sychem, one of Greece’s biggest desalination-plant manufacturers. “We’re talking about a hundred islands, with a hundred mayors, all with their own customs and their own ways of doing things.”
A prefabricated desalination plant was taken to Patmos in 2010 and sat untouched for six years, according to the island’s mayor. On Irakleia, a small island, several EU-funded desalination units rusted into disrepair without ever being used. On Symi, near Turkey, the local Orthodox church balked at the very idea of a plant, according to residents, and insisted on shipping it elsewhere. “Whenever desalination plants were installed, weird problems would arise,” recalls Santorinios, the former deputy minister. “We would be told that they were ‘out of order,’ or they would just stop functioning.”
Suspicions of foul play have proliferated as inexplicable breakdowns have increased. From Santorini to Crete, desalination facilities in seemingly perfect order have suddenly seized up. The lining of a newly excavated reservoir on Kastellorizo off Turkey’s southern coast, Greece’s most distant island, was torn in mysterious circumstances in 2006. Mayors across the Dodecanese islands say that the construction and operation of plants have been stifled by nerouláde and bottle-importer payoffs and lawsuits. “You see a whole lot of monkey business everywhere you look,” says Panagiotis Hatziperos, a former vice governor of Attica.
According to Sychem, the total daily capacity of facilities that feed desalinated water to public networks is about 92,000 cubic meters. That’s no more than 40% of what’s needed, the company estimates. Current facilities don’t even reach their full potential, producing less than half of what they could, Yfantis said.
Desalination Remains an Untapped Opportunity for Greece’s Islands
Total estimated capacity of operational water desalination facilities
Meanwhile, the plastics industry has gone from strength to strength. Greece discards some 40,000 tons per year, a vast increase since the 1990s, according to the A.C. Laskaridis Foundation, a charity. On Aegina, a single taverna estimates that it doles out 25,000 bottles a month. At least 10 new Greek bottled water companies have sprung up since 1990. And bottles are a bargain, with regulated prices at 50 cents per three-quarters of a liter, cheaper than almost anywhere else in Europe.
Environmental success stories in this part of the eastern Mediterranean are few. One, Leipsi, rises out of the Aegean 20 miles west of the Turkish coast. “Supplying us with ship-tanker water used to cost the government 600,000 euros a year,” explains Fotis Mangos, Leipsi’s mayor. “We thought it was very unfair and stupid to lose this amount of money for something that we could fix without much money.”
After he became mayor in 2016, Mangos installed five desalination kiosks; at one euro per 20 liters, the water was 95% cheaper than bottles. Next, he gave out desalinated water free for one week while charging double the next to recoup losses. He publicized daily tests of the kiosks’ water to emphasize their cleanliness. He brainstormed a new collection system for Leipsi’s plastic: selling the trash to recyclers in Athens and plowing proceeds back into cleanup. By the time the plan was fully functional, the nerouládes were gone and the island’s plastic-bottle waste had been halved.
Not everyone is happy. Theologos Gamperes, who once distributed water across the island, now sells as much as 15,000 fewer bottles a year. “It’s ruined my business,” he says, breaking off to make change for a Leipsiot to use a nearby desalination kiosk. “A lot of people didn’t trust water from it in the beginning. People got used to it now.”
Many residents take pride in the system. “It’s a small island. Where the state goes, the people follow,” says Nikos Mossos, a computer engineer who estimates that the kiosks save his family 400 euros a month.
The Greek state, which agreed to pay for five years of Leipsi’s desalination, now spends a tenth of what it did. And with a growing reputation as an ecologically responsible destination, the island is attracting more and more visitors. “The reason that this problem was solved was because the mayor took the initiative himself,” says Anastasia Miliou, head of the Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation, a Leipsi-based environmental organization.
Other islands are looking to Leipsi as an example. But individual reforms go only so far. Leipsi’s north coastline is still littered with tattered shopping bags, beer-bottle caps and countless colorful microplastics from almost every Mediterranean state. In a sea as small and enclosed as this one, conservationists say, only comprehensive, multinational action can keep the torrent of plastic at bay.
The past two years in Greece have been transformative. For the first time in a generation, few tourists made it to the islands, and many Greeks have had occasion to ponder the tradeoffs they’ve made. Having sacrificed natural resources for riches, they experienced a year with little of either. Amid the specter of climate change, which promises more erratic rainfall — and even greater pressure on shrinking resources — many islanders are clamoring for action.
They’re pushing on an open door. The nerouládes have lost most of their business since desalination expanded. Building a plant — formerly requiring a litany of permissions from archaeologists and marine biologists and unexploded ordnance specialists — has been streamlined. An ambitious plan to expand wind energy may make desalination cheaper for the islands. Even Kalymnos is making strides. By installing two dozen free potable water kiosks across the island, municipal officials have lightened the load on the smoldering landfill.
Still, some conservationists believe the state’s commitment is only publicity-deep. “The minister of environment went to Santorini and said it’s now plastic free. But nothing happened apart from posters in airports,” said Miliou of the Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation. “They’re bullshitting the tourists.”
And cultures can change much more slowly than water systems. Many locals say they have little intention of ditching their bottles soon. “It takes a generation to change an island’s habits,” says Eleftherios Pentes, mayor of Patmos.
This is in many respects a story about the impossibility of unilateral action. Longstanding tensions have stifled the construction of pipelines to the Turkish mainland. At the same time, the islands’ strategic significance and small permanent populations may have reinforced their mayors’ intransigence. The government “has to give them money to keep people there,” said Yfantis of Sychem.
As with so many of Greece’s environmental initiatives, officials in Athens may be waiting for the real impetus to come from elsewhere. In July, the European Union banned many single-use plastics, with the intention of phasing out most plastic bottles by the decade’s end. “The plastic bottle is just the most disturbing illustration of our throwaway society,” says Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator and president of Beyond Plastics, an environmental group. “A gallon of bottled water costs more than a gallon of oil.”
Greece’s plastic predicament also illustrates an overlooked reality: Opponents of environmental action are often a lot smaller and more parochial than one might imagine. You can pass all the green legislation you want, but it’s unlikely to help if it doesn’t consider provincial bureaucracy and local interests. You can try to detach communities from self-harming practices, but it might be useless without reducing the appeal of quick fixes. Ultimately, in their mutual disregard for sustainability, plastic conglomerates and mass tourism may just be different sides of the same polluting coin.
In December, after almost four decades of delays, Aegina finally is due to receive piped water. Residents are happy, though still skeptical that it will ever arrive. After so many travails, few involved in the pipeline’s construction are resting easy. Says Petropoulos, the engineer who laid the pipeline and fixed the sabotage: “It would be devastating were this to happen again.”
—With assistance from Demetrios Pogkas