Thursday, January 5, 2012

Campaigns: Pikrodaphne Stream, Attika

Athens has very few streams (most have been covered-over and are now sewers or drain-pipes...). One the last remaing natural-looking streams in Athens is called Pikrodaphne (Greek for Oleander, Nerium oleander). Here I'll mention a few things about what a few money-hungry giants want to do to this stream, and why I think we should put up a fight. 

About the stream
Its a tiny catchment on the southern part of Athens running off the dry foothills of Mount Hymmetos and crossing the municipalities of Daphne, Ag.Dimitrios, P.Phalero, Alimos and others. This narrow river basin covers a mere 22.4 square kilometers in one of the driest parts of Central Greece's rain shadow.  Although the stream's main stem is about 8.5 km long, the major part of the basin (>50%) is within the built-up conurbation; and, there are very few parks or open spaces in the surrounding area. The tiny stream looks like a green ribbon from above. Because so much of the catchment is so heavily build and impermeable, all run-off goes directly to the stream, making it flow perennially along most of its main stem.  The stream's mouth is next to Alimos Marina and creates a wonderful micro-wetland. A stopover for many birds. Generally, despite some urban water pollution, the stream is very much alive. Frogs, toads, lizards, water insects and many birds such as kingfishers are easily spotted; tiny marine fish shelter in the stream-mouth. The flora of the stream is species-rich; many micro-habitats exist for birds, bats, reptiles in the riparian zone. The stream-side vegetation is semi-natural- often dominated by non-indigenous wild-growing shrubs and trees. The dense riparian zones acts as a green oasis. At some locations, gullying and erosion are evident but flooding has not occurred in many decades. 

What they want to do
Athenians chose to protect this stream in 1993 within legislation as an "area of special environmental interest" (Policy 9173/1642/3.3.1993) and many statements have been published in public policy promoting its preservation.  So why should this oasis in such an "urban desert" be threatened?

The local government authority (at the level of the Attika Region) has commissioned a study to do some heavy-handed stream engineering and development here. The "solution" to the potential "erosion" and "flood risk" is to cover-up nearly the entire upper-mid, mid and lower section of the stream with gabbion retaining walls, including the gabbion-fortification of much of the stream's bed! The Environmental Impact Study states that 4,500 meters of the stream will be covered up in gabbion with nearly all the riparian and natural channel modified. Another 600 meter stretch of three tributary streams will also be built-up with gabbion and a further 400 meters near the stream-mouth will be cast in concrete! As a mitigation measure a grand total of 3131 trees will be planted (mostly non-indegenous species).  Apart from the engineering works that will deform nearly all the riparian zone of the stream, special recreation developments are planned and lots of money will be poured-in the form of concrete. These include: small open-air theater, bridges, benches, basket-soccer-tennis courts; broad well-lit walkways etc. etc.

Projected costs for these works are estimated within the Environmental Assessment Study as: 8.6 million for river engineering; 1.2 million for tree-planting/horticulture works; and 11.2 million for special recreation works. A grand total of about 21.3 Million Euros as a first-scoping estimate (projected to be a lot more in practice - as usual...). 

I think this type of engineering-restoration-development project in an urban stream is a clever ploy to "go BIG" with easy EU money for all concerned. A fast-track process has been set up to see the project go ahead, putting the EU money "to good use". At one of the public hearings in Paleo Phaliro Municipality early this autumn, the Environmental Impact Study was presented and it was clear to me that this sort of study is sloppily planned and based on low-grade science. The consultants were questioned by many well-informed citizens and met a lot of opposition. Opposition to whole-scale river engineering in the name of "flood fear" came from local Municipal leaders also. 

The alternative
Anyone who has ever travelled in Mediterranean-climate cities of Europe, California or Australia will have seen urban streams where care is taken to design-in naturalness in erosion-control or flood-protection schemes.  Usually its done after a really solid scientific study (which the present proposal for Pikrodaphne lacks). In a very careful "surgical manner" retaining walls may be built at localized stretches, even the use of gabbion will be used locally. Sometimes so-called bio-engineering methods will be used to retain naturalness (using natural materials). Recreation developments in riparian zones often promote passive recreation and do not pour concrete everywhere.... AND nowhere have I seen gabbion cover kilometer-long stretches in an urban stream! We need an alternative study here and we need to protect what's at stake - the rich semi-natural values and beauty of one of Athens' last-surviving urban streams. 

If anyone is interested in this issue please contact "The Attika Region" maybe even petition directly to Governor Ioannis Sgouros.  Or seek-out local municipalities and NGOs that are working to make a difference. I was happy to see the Municipality of Agios Dimitrios keenly interested to help stop this nonsensical stream destruction. 

Google Earth Photo of Pikrodaphne Stream. Black arrow shows intersection with Vouliagmenis Avenue from where the proposed river engineering works (i.e. gabbion retaining walls etc) will begin and continue, more-or-less down to the river mouth (white arrow). The dry slopes of Mount Hymmetos are apparent at the bottom-right.

The stream-mouth, a beauty spot and migratory bird hot-spot. The water  flows to  the sea even in summer  (photo: early September 2011).
At the estuary-like stream-mouth looking north. This is what the coast of our city looks like: Very embarrassing for an Athenian conservationist.

Lower section near the river mouth. Note the old retaining concrete wall here. The river is flowing and full of  Balkan Frogs and Green Toads at this point. Dragonflies too.

Well shaded, lower portion. Despite the old concrete retaining wall the opposite side is semi-natural looking. Note the rich water-plant community in the active channel. I think it smells like mint...

Lower mid section on bedrock. Gully-like but the riparian zone is natural-looking thick with figs, reed cane, vines. A green strip in the middle of  the Athenian urbane scene.
Mid section, a portion with a large riparian zone, forming an "island". Thickets of reed cane totally shade the stream.

Mid section, reed cane thicket "jungle" and island-like situation created by incoming  tributary confluence. 
Mid section of stream with open green area. This site had many frogs, damselflies and a Kingfisher was hunting here. 

Upper section near Vouliagmenis Avenue. This section is  very steep-sided but still well vegetated, mainly with exotics (Eucalypts, Acacia, Tree-of-heaven, Indian Bead Tree etc.).

Tiny Green Frog tadpoles on Platanus leaves, photographed in early spring in the upper part of the stream (near Vouliagmenis Avenue). Note the clarity of the water.

Of course, the green linear riparian zone is an oasis for city birdlife. Members of the Hellenic Ornithological Society have studied the streams birdlife. I found this Blackbird (Turdus merula) in the upper part of the stream.

Upper part of the stream in early spring 2011. Waters are full of filamentous algae but are clear and slowly flowing. Riparian zone is rich in native and non-indigenous plants. Good mixture of habitats for migrant birds.


  1. What about EU Directive 2000/60 Stamati? How was the stream characterised there?

    Nice presentation!