Pollution and illegal irrigation have put Lake Koroneia's fragile ecosystem on the brink of collapse. Last month, Brussels targeted Greece with legal action for failing to rehabilitate the valuable wetland resource.
Water theft and pollution are killing Lake Koroneia
Decades ago, Lake Koroneia in northern Greece was a place where hundreds of fishing families earned their livelihoods. Today, fish stocks appear nonexistent; the lake's water volume has shrunk, and what remains is inhospitable to underwater life.
In 2004, Greece vowed to take action, in hopes of rehabilitating the wetland habitat near Thessaloniki. But with just around 30 percent of planned projects in place seven years later, the European Commission is crying foul.
Brussels decided in late January to bring the Greek government before the European Court of Justice over what it sees as a clear failure to comply with environmental directives.
"Gradually, we became aware that not much was happening, to be honest," the Commission's spokesman for environment, Joe Hennon, told Deutsche Welle.
The EU had pledged to provide funding for the implementation of a 2004 action plan intended to address ongoing problems threatening the ecosystem around Lake Koroneia. This was meant to include a number of integrated projects, such as plugging illegal boreholes used by area farms to drain lakewater for irrigation purposes, as well as creating waste water treatment systems in hopes of controlling discharge from industry.
But due to ongoing problems at the site, no money has yet been paid to Greece, and if the court rules in favor of the European Commission, no funding will be provided, Hennon said. He declined to speculate on the outcome of the case but justified the legal action.
"We don't want to pre-judge the court's decision, but clearly the Commission wouldn't go to court unless we had a very good chance of winning," he added.
Environmental authorities in Brussels consider the wetlands around the lake all the more worthy of rescue given habitat loss throughout Europe.
Botulism resulting from pollution has killed many birds around the lake
Lake Koroneia is protected under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, due to its status as a home for a range of endangered bird species. The Commission's website lists the white-tailed eagle, as well as the squacco heron as just a few examples.
Years of pollution buildup mean the lake's water is no longer safe for swimming. Even if fishing were possible at Koroneia, the excess of heavy metals would render any catch inedible. An overabundance of nutrients has led to uncontrolled algae growth, which chokes off other underwater life forms.
An article published Tuesday by Britain's Guardian newspaper carried the ominous headline "Lake Koroneia in northern Greece is dying," citing the lake's dramatically decreasing water levels, down 80 percent over the past three decades.
"The environmental situation of the lake, the conditions are not so good," said Antonios Kokkinakis, an assistant professor in the Department of Foresty and Natural Environment at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
Kokkinakis said the turnaround happened in the mid-90s, when the lake's pH levels rose dramatically, killing off the fish population. "From this time, unfortunately, until now, we don't have a fish population in this lake," he told Deutsche Welle.
Dimitra Bobori, another professor at the university and president of the management authority for both Lake Koroneia and Lake Volvi, also located in Greece, said pH levels recorded at the site were over 11 – the value of an alkaline solution.
Athens has failed to rehabilitate the wetland
In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Bobori said she could not speak to the direct reason for the rise in values, noting that temperatures during the summer of 1995 were very high, but said she thought industrial waste flowing directly into the lake was one of the factors responsible for this "tragic result".
Water level is also an ongoing problem due to illegal water extraction. "Nowadays, the lake is almost half the surface area compared to the previous years," she said.
Bobori said her management authority was focusing on conservation efforts in the entirety of the lake ecosystem, as well as conservation of endangered species in the area. She said several different authorities were involved in the plan to protect the lake but showed a "delay" in undertaking concrete actions, adding that only about 30 percent of projects listed in the master plan had been completed.
Sounding the alarm
But for Brussels, 30 percent was too little too late. A ruling from the European Court of Justice could send a strong signal to Greece on the issue - but that message isn't set to be delivered any time soon.
From the European Commission, Hennon said the question of when the case against Greece concludes would depend on the court's schedule - but added that it would be reasonable to expect the legal proceedings to take about two years. He noted that the Commission would expect Greece to comply with environmental legislation pertaining to the lake in the meantime.
Were Greece to reverse its handling of the situation and make true progress on rehabilitating the wetland habitat, Hennon said the Commission could potentially reassess whether a court case were really necessary.
"It depends on how far the case has gone and how serious we think it is," he told Deutsche Welle.
Meanwhile, Brussels' decision to go to court is motivated by a keen sense of Europe's collective shortcomings in addressing environmental problems, including its failure to meet biodiversity targets for last year.
"To tackle that problem, you can't just talk about strategies, you have to talk about actual, physical actions. You have to deal with individual cases," he said - cases like Lake Koroneia.
Author: Amanda Price
Editor: Saroja Coelho