The Water Problem

(Desertification on Crete,  from

This is a contribution of MAZI e.V. – Network Griechenland

Closed eye in the disaster

“Just imagine, get on your own mountain trail and cut your throat, and what do you do? You open your jacket and shirt collar voluntarily.” So, in a mixture of anger and resignation, a three-year-old Cretan two years ago. “With this thing” was the attitude that his compatriots could observe the water problem especially in the south of the island. Or better: the non-previous attitude to a truly existential threat that is longer. Leading in the very future could complete the regions in the Asterousia Mountains and the Messara Plains. Desertification matters. The good man, we are just Manolis or Nikos, is one of the minority in the area who has dealt with the subject.

The illusion of infinite availability

The “water problem” is a matter that confirms certain causes. The obvious and superficial one is the overuse of existing resources. The village association Tsigounas (see menu “Projects”) has carried out a research project in cooperation with the Department of Environmental Systems Science of ETH Zurich. The preface to the publication states:

Tsigounas belongs to semiarid region of South Crete. The climate is characterised by low precipitation rates in winter and rain-free summer months. Farming is only with additional irrigation possible. Over 80% of water requirement are then too used in the agriculture. During the last 30 years the farming methods have been intensified and green house farming has replaced the most of traditional open land farming. As a consequence, the water demand has risen explosively. All over the land new groundwater wells were bored. The resulted overuse of water has caused a dramatic subsidence of groundwater level. In years between1989 and 1999 this subsidence amounted to 20 meters and tendency remains. For the offshore regions this development implies the danger of break-in of sea-water. Without the natural fresh-water barrier the dehydrated aquifers will become filled by inflowing sea-water. Use of this salted groundwater for irrigation would lead to desertification of the affected areas within only a few years”

In addition, one has to mention that mainly in the Asterousia Mountains is drilled, whose resources have so far also been supplied with significant parts of the Messara.

When tanks are no longer refilled

The LEDDRA project of the ‘Ecologic Institute EU’ has investigated in a four-year study the reasons for soil degradation (deterioration of soil ecosystem services to their complete loss) and desertification. In addition to regions in China, Russia, Portugal, Spain and Cap Verde, the entire region Asterousia / Messara was also selected for this – who would have thought so. Focusing on the water scarcity there can be diagnosed in addition to the overuse (which is also caused by the in recent decades immensely increased olive crops, especially in the Messara), another factor. Overgrazing, especially in the Asterousia, has led to the destruction of large parts of the erosion blanket. Thanks to the karstification, rainwater no longer has a chance to infiltrate the soil and fill up the groundwater supplies. It just flows off, and sometimes to a catastrophic extent. (Repeatedly, whole vehicles were washed away by the temporary masses of water along the coast.) By the way, over the decades, valuable arable land, which would have been ideal for small-scale farming in the mountains, was washed away.


(Endless olive crops and greenhouses need endless water)

Competition principle and negligence

Back to the Tsigounas research project. Drilling for water mainly takes place on private land by the owners, so they are virtually family owned and benefit only the (partially extended) family. It is similar with the cisterns in the village or near the village. The competition principle among farmers, which was previously imposed by the hard market, is hereby intensified once again, especially as the erroneous assumption prevails that the more water, the more harvest. The possibility of using rainwater, at least in winter, is still far too little. This could cover up to 35% of the demand, if only catch basins were set up and above all the drainage water from the greenhouses would be collected. This is done by very few farmers in the village. Rainwater is also much better used by the plants, so could reduce the need. The groundwater, on the other hand, is very mineral-rich and often leads to unfavourable deposits of mineral salts. Another problem has long been negligent water transfer. Hoses and their coupling parts often showed porosity or leaks, the loss of water on the way was blatant. However, a lot has happened in the last decade due to awareness raising. The investigation has also shown that special irrigation practices in the greenhouses would also save a lot.

No problem with the problem

A rethink here is still marginal. How overall against the existential threat of lowering the groundwater mirror. Quote from the publication:

“The majority of farmers denied any water shortage. Farmers who reported lack of water described this as a temporary problem, mostly in May / June due to the large water needs of watermelons and sometimes in September / October when the autumn rains were delayed. No farmer thought the water situation was really problematic, and certainly not the lowering of the groundwater level. ”

(Collage: What’s the look of the Messara one day?)

Possible countermeasures

To replenish this, it would take considerable activities in the mountains. First of all, there should be understanding and cooperation between farmers and livestock farmers in order to curb the consequences of overgrazing. Not a simple matter in the development of the past decades. From 1960 to 2000, the stock of creations and goats grew from 30,000 to 90,000. The stock today will be much higher. In addition, there is a certain monopolization in the ranchers’ guild. Less and less owners have ever larger herds. The shepherd as a self-sufficient family member dies out.

Furthermore, extensive measures would have to be taken to add rainwater to the groundwater by infiltration. This is quite feasible, as shown by the activities of water specialist Sepp Holzer from Austria, who has been advising the world over the past decades. Small dams, walls, catch basins, ditches and more simply have to hold back the rainwater and then distribute it over a wide area. But you must start with that first.

Sensitization as an important task

Important for this is a substantial understanding of the problem in the population. Finally, the study by the Tsigounas Association and ETH Zurich concludes that farmers (and also ranchers, of course) cannot be held responsible for the lack of groundwater alone. They have had to adapt to the general dictates of profit maximization and growth in the agricultural market as well. But without their participation the problem cannot be solved either, so it is necessary to make them aware of the problem. However, this can only be done carefully and carefully planned by starting with your own everyday life, in which theoretical and abstract explanations are completely superfluous. “Taking care of water must be as natural as understanding how to look after your own plants. Saving water must be just as important to them as the daily market prices of cucumber or tomato. ”

It is, in fact, a question of education and training, which the clientele respectfully picks up in their field of experience. At the same time, it also makes it clear that there are common problems that can only be solved jointly. And not on the principle of everyone-for-ones and against all.