Storm Daniel's flash floods and wildfires change Greece's islands for all time

As the Greek government reels from a summer of deadly wildfires and catastrophic rains, rural communities on the island of Evia say their future is uncertain.

The Agricultural Co-operative of Rovies in the north of Evia. Lemma Shehadi / The National
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Olive farmer Nikos Vallis would normally be preparing for the harvest at this time of year.

But days after Storm Daniel swept across Greece, he was working to save what was damaged by the ensuing floods. “Three hundred tonnes of water per square metre fell in 53 minutes,” he told The National.

“The canal behind the pickling factory flooded bringing burned pine trees from the mountain, big stones and lots of mud. This filled storage areas with mud and damaged packaging materials and barrels with olives,” he said.

Mr Vallis heads a co-operative of olive tree farmers outside the village of Rovies in northern Evia, a Greek island. The 130-member collective has farmed together for more than 40 years, on 350 hectares of land with 70,000 olive trees.

Greece’s increasingly volatile weather has made these farmers' future uncertain. This summer alone, Europe experienced its largest wildfires on record in north-east Greece, while other large fires raged across the country, destroying 378,381 hectares of land – more than double the predicted damage.

Then, days later, torrential rains led to deadly floods, landslides, road and bridge collapses, power failures and destroying a quarter of the country’s agricultural production.

Climate change and human factors were responsible for the heavy rainfall across the Mediterranean, according to a rapid analysis – published on Monday by the World Weather Attribution group – of the recent storms in Greece and Libya.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis described the climate-related disasters as a “war in a time of peace”. “Over a two-week period, we experienced the worst wildfire and the worst floods in our history,” he said last week. “The climate crisis is here and forces us to see everything differently.”

But he has faced criticism for his handling of the crises, including from experts and opposition figures who say that prevention measures protecting people from fires and flooding were not in place.

“Climate change can increase the frequency and intensity of the wildfires but it cannot be an excuse for inaction,” Dr Apostolos Kyriazopoulos, a specialist in rangeland management at the University of Democritus in Thrace, told The National.

The flooding in Rovies was linked to wildfires on the island of Evia two years ago, which made the soil of the mountains above the village more vulnerable to landslides.

The village population of about 800 was still reeling from those fires, that had razed the north of Evia and caused tens of thousands to flee their homes. The co-operative’s members were evacuated then, and lost at least 10 per cent of their trees.

“We agreed to be evacuated but perhaps we shouldn’t have. When we came back large parts of the olive grove were burnt. The only way to stop that would have been to stay and do it ourselves,” Mr Vallis said.

Yet they returned and worked hard to revive their land with government compensation, which included €50 ($53.22) for every lost tree. Mr Vallis was brought to tears when he recalled how his son’s friends had flown in days after the fires to help rebuild his farm.

Mr Vallis fears this year’s flood could be the final nail in the coffin for some of his co-operative’s members. “All of our members returned after the wildfires, we did not hear of anyone leaving. Maybe some of them will now after the floods,” Mr Vallis said.

The government has pledged to develop better wildfire prevention plans, which would help to mitigate the damage, amid claims that they did too little, too late.

“There are no prevention measures from the Greek government, only emergency responses,” said Alexandra Politaki, an EU climate pact ambassador and political scientist in Athens.

The focus on addressing disasters as they happen has long-lasting humanitarian consequences she said, because people are forced to flee their homes and farmlands. “The main practice of the Greek government is to evacuate villages [when a wildfire happens]. This evacuation transforms a healthy population to a vulnerable one,” she said.

During the summer wildfires in the north-east forest of Dadia, villagers resisted evacuation. “They preferred to stay and defend their property themselves. It’s the first time we see this in such an organised form,” she said.

The division of work between Greece’s central government, ministries and local municipalities was also to blame. “Nobody knows who is going to do what. There is no plan on any level, not a local plan, municipal or regional level, nor a national level,” she added..

Greece’s rural communities are essential to maintaining the land and reducing the risks associated with climate-related disasters. With their traditional activities, such as pruning and herding, the forests do not become too desne and are less flammable, Dr Kyriazopoulos said.

But these populations have been dwindling for years, and climate change may accelerate the exodus. “Rural communities and especially the ones at the edge of forests have been shrinking for years now and their population is aging,” Dr Kyriazopoulos said. “It won’t be surprising if more people leave.”

Reforms in the late 1990s, in which firefighting services took on the role of combating wildfires, contributed to the challenges they face, Dr Kyriazopoulos said. Before then, forestry services were in charge of prevention and putting out wildfires. “[After the reforms] most of the available funds were spent on combating wildfires, while the prevention was neglected,” he said.

Communities were also centralised, which limited access to public services. “Three or four villages become one municipality with one police station and fire station, instead of four. The time to intervene in case of emergency was increased if the incident occurred in the village farthest from the centre."

Better funding for Greece’s forestry services was among the “basic but essential” prevention measures he hoped to see in place, Dr Kyriazopoulous said. Other measures include monitoring the forests from towers and drones, to reviving traditional methods that once kept the forests maintained.

Locals could be better employed to prevent wildfires from spreading, he added. “Rural communities’ lives are intrinsically linked with the land. They know the landscape, can be immediately employed on the ground in co-ordination with the firefighters under the supervision of forestry service personnel to protect homes and property,” he said.

In the aftermath of a fire, mapping should be done by foresters to help prevent floods and soil erosion.

And, significantly, long-term support for Greece’s rural communities after the fires was needed to prevent an exodus. “Greek authorities should provide incentives to the local communities to keep them in the burnt areas. For example, they should provide animal feed to the livestock farmers who cannot graze their flocks on the burnt rangelands for five years,” he said.

Some villages have started doing just that. In Nerotrivia, a village in Central Evia populated by just 500 people, locals have come together to keep an eye out for signs of fires in the surrounding forest.

“When you love your home and your community you will do everything you can to protect it,” said Vassilis Bakoutis, a local butcher and taverna owner, whose brother is the elected representative of the village.

For the duration of the summer, young people were placed on guard duty in the night, he said. Volunteers went up to the forests above the village to monitor them during the day.

With government funding, they have employed specialists to help clear the forest floors and prune the trees. A 40-tonne water tank was placed at the top of the mountain above the village, with a landing strip for helicopters, in the event of a fire. “My brother asked for two,” he said.

They also get help from the local services, which are stationed about a 45-minute drive away in the town of Psachna. “Every day during the summer, they send either a fireman, a policeman or a soldier to the village who will be there in case a fire breaks out,” Mr Bakoutis said.

Staying positive was essential, despite the tremendous challenges. “It’s working and this summer we had no fires – for now,” Mr Bakoutis said.

But others say the measures are not enough, and that people are still at risk.

Farmer Vassileos Dafnis lost all his livestock and blueberry plantation three years ago in a deadly flash flood caused by an unexpected cyclone.

All that remained of his farmhouse near Psachna were the floor tiles. “I left my farm in the evening, the next morning when I returned to walk the horses, everything was gone,” he said.

Although the rivers near him now have higher stone walls, some bridges have yet to be rebuilt. “The small rivers are too small for the quantity of water. They are polluted with plastic bags and other garbage which stops the water from running [during the storm],” he said. “If we have another flood, it will be the same problem all over again.”

This has made him hesitant to rebuild his farm and buy new animals. Instead, he has focused on replanting blueberries – which are key to his health-food business. “In four hours, I lost everything. I’m worried that if I build something again, I will lose it in the next floods,” he said.

Updated: September 26, 2023, 8:40 AM