‘The blue flags are proof’: how Greece cleaned up its act on sewage

‘The blue flags are proof’: how Greece cleaned up its act on sewage

Greeks take their seas seriously, with the construction of one of the world’s biggest sewage treatment plants a real game-changer

The shimmering waters along the Athenian riviera offer a welcome respite in the summer heat. In one of Europe’s most congested cities the sight of ever more beaches attaining blue flag status – a mascot of water quality – has heightened the sense of relief that the coastal location affords. For those who flock to its coves, rocks and sandy stretches, the shoreline that extends from the Greek capital’s southern suburbs has become the perfect antidote to the rising temperatures that have accompanied climate breakdown.

It was not always so.

“More than 20 years ago the waters around Attica [peninsula] weren’t for bathing as they definitely weren’t as clean,” says Prof Konstantinos Aravossis who until earlier this year oversaw water management policies at the Greek ministry of environment. “They are now because a lot of emphasis was put on improving wastewater treatment plants and that, of course, had a lot to do with regulations in the EU.”

The establishment in the mid-1990s of a sewage plant on the uninhabited Saronic Gulf isle of Psyttaleia, off the port of Piraeus – an installation serving the 5 million residents of the greater Athens area and one of the largest in the world – is widely acknowledged as being a game-changer.

“The blue flags that we see today in Attica are proof of just how much better the situation is,” says Aravossis, who now heads the ministry of environment’s forestry department.

But with one of the longest coastline on the continent, Greece also takes its seas seriously. At last count Europe’s southernmost state had 581 blue flag beaches – second only to the 621 in Spain. In 2021, the EU’s environmental watchdog classified nearly 96% of monitored bathing sites in Greece as excellent.

A visiting professor at Imperial College London, Aravossis is among Greek officials who have been left astounded by the news of popular beaches in the UK being inundated with raw sewage, and with it all the attendant risks such discharges will inevitably have on the environment and public health.

“It’s very unexpected,” he says with noticeable understatement. “Obviously there has not been proper documentation and monitoring of the system. Here in Greece, and especially at the Psyttaleia plant, surveillance is very strict, which does not seem to have been the case in the UK.”

Tourism has played a vital role in sensitising Greeks to the importance of keeping their seas and rivers clean. The sector is the national economy’s major industry, employing one in five workers and accounting for an estimated 25% of the country’s gross domestic product.

Up and down the land, pristine waters have become a central part of the narrative to lure holidaymakers with the international blue flag programme regarded as a byword for local excellence.

“There’s been a very big increase in the number of local town halls and other beach managers applying for blue flag status,” says Dareia-Nefeli Vourdoumpa, at the Hellenic Society for the protection of Nature, the NGO heading the programme in Greece for the past 30 years.

“We’re very fortunate to have such natural beauty and we’ve understood how important good ecological management of our beaches and marinas is to tourism.”

Continue reading…

This is an excerpt from an article by Helena Smith originally published by The Guardian.

Related Articles


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

- Sustainable Tourism Crash Course -spot_img

Useful resources