Water and Sabotage in Paradise: Greece’s Hidden Climate Conflict

Greece’s islands might seem like unlikely settings for a wild years-long sabotage campaign, but the explosions tell a different story.

By Peter Schwartzstein

In late July, a person or persons unknown detonated a bomb alongside the undersea Salamina-to-Aegina water pipeline in Greece, leaving nothing but traces of a fuse and leaking freshwater.

Two years earlier, in January 2020, other – or possibly the same – suspects punctured that pipeline in dozens of places with a drill. On that occasion, they set back the completion of the then-under construction project by more than a year.

On Mykonos, Paros, and a good number of other idyllic islands, desalination plants and other forms of water infrastructure have suffered repeated and ‘inexplicable’ breakdowns in recent years. Though impossible to prove malicious intention in many instances, desalination technicians say that not even subpar maintenance can explain away this volume of problems.

“You see a whole lot of monkey business everywhere you look,” Greek politician Panagiotis Hatziperos told Alexander Clapp and me when we delved into the situation for Bloomberg in 2021. “These are not accidents,” a water official reiterated.

Islanders have been quick to pin the blame on the ‘nerouládes,’ the businessmen who ship water in large tankers from the comparatively well-resourced Greek mainland to many of the parched Cycladic and Dodecanese islands. And despite limited irrefutable proof, they’re likely at least partly right. These operators and their peers in the bottled water distribution business are losing much of their income as the state slowly weans these islands onto more sustainable and cheaper water sources, like desalination. Some of these men appear unwilling to surrender their position without a fight, according to more than a dozen former and current officials who we interviewed for the article.

As things stand, the government foots the bill for these tanker shipments, which come in at an average of 27,000 euros each and which collectively cost the state tens of millions of euros a year at their peak. Doubts over the quality of the water that the tanker men deliver are also saddling some islands, like Santorini, with some of the highest per capita rates of bottled water consumption on Earth. 

But as captivating as discovering the identity of the saboteurs might be, they’re only part of the sorry saga. Because while much of this water shortage is rooted in the mass tourism that has transformed these once lightly populated islands into something very different, this is also an illustration of some of the shenanigans that climate change can fuel. Total rainfall is falling and, perhaps more importantly, increasingly coming within more condensed time periods across the eastern Mediterranean. The corresponding reduction in aquifer recharge has consequently depleted these islands’ natural water stores, just as demand soars. That ushered in damaging quick fixes from the 1980s onwards.

Moved to action by the financial crisis, which finally brought the nerouláde costs into focus, the Greek state has broken much of the operators’ power in recent years. There are now dozens of island desalination plants and, in the case of the most easily accessible islands, a number of pipelines from the mainland. The water men, who deny any role in these attacks, say they’ve been abandoned by an unappreciative country after years of preventing the cash-spinning islands from running dry.

Yet, even with that business in its death throes, the ‘incidents’ continue, as Clapp and I found over our reporting. On Kastellorizo, a Greek island off the south coast of Turkey, a reservoir lining was recently torn in circumstances that locals insist couldn’t be accidental. On Leipsi, an island with fewer than a thousand year-round residents, someone is routinely gumming up the harbor-side stations that supply desalinated drinking water. Islanders suspect the mayor’s brother, an importer of bottled water whose takings have dropped since the stations’ installation. 

On holy Patmos, the mayor alleges that tanker operators have paid locals to both sow doubt about the cleanliness of desalinated water and hold up additional desalination plant construction on spurious legal grounds. And so on.

As much as the world focuses on its contribution to conflict and headline-grabbing extremism in mostly poor regions, climate change can also provide the mood music to outlandish water-related conflict in richer countries, too. 


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