Xinhua: Greece faces flood risk in wake of destructive wildfires

Greece faces imminent flood risk in the areas afflicted by devastating wildfires this summer, a geomorphology expert has warned, calling on residents to improve awareness and their ability to deal with natural disasters.

Since the beginning of August, hundreds of wildfires have been burning in Greece in the wake of the country’s worst heat wave in the last few decades that left shrubland and forests parched.

Hundreds of blazes in the wider Athens region, the Peloponnese peninsula and Evia island among others decimated more than 100,000 hectares of forestry and farmland, said the European Forest Fire Information System.

Two people died during their firefighting efforts and thousands of animals perished as a result of the disaster, according to the latest official count. More than 1,700 houses, businesses and other buildings have been damaged by the wildfires, the Greek Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport said Friday.

Niki Evelpidou, professor of geomorphology and geographical information systems at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, has warned of flood risk in the fire-affected areas as they are still assessing the damages caused by the wildfires.

Recalling August 2020 when flash floods hit Evia island and eight people lost their lives in areas which had suffered fires a few months earlier, Evelpidou said she and her colleagues have already identified a few of the high-risk flood zones in areas burnt by this summer’s fires.

“We must shield ourselves against the next catastrophe. We cannot respond immediately in all areas, but we can see which streams will be linked to floods that will pass through residential areas,” she said.

It will take a longer time to determine the full extent of the impact, but the prompt implementation of measures such as flood proofing fencing in flood-prone zones should be a priority to prevent further pain, she told Xinhua in a recent interview in Tatoi, one of the fire-affected suburbs of Athens.

The government has pledged swift financial aid to fire-affected households and rolled out a comprehensive strategy to improve natural disaster prevention policies, response and post-disaster reconstruction.

It is still too early to say if and when nature will heal its wounds in the days after and where assistance will be needed for reforestation and restoration of the ecosystem, Evelpidou said, but the near future looks bleak, as autumn and heavy rainstorms draw near.

In the long term, the fire-stricken areas face the specter of desertification and climate change sooner than forecast to date, Evelpidou noted.

“Gradually, our country in all these areas that were affected this year will face intense desertification. Athens’ climate will change. The last ‘lung’ providing oxygen to Attica is gone … Will we be able to revive it? We can try, but it is a big wager. It will take many years. It is not something that will happen tomorrow,” she said.

Forest fires are common during Greece’s hot, dry summers. In order to tackle future challenges, the professor called for a change of both government policies and public awareness to deal with natural disasters.

“After visiting these days many of the affected areas, I will say something simple. Let’s not expect everything from the state. Even today, after this destruction which took place in our country, gardens are full of dry pine needles. (There are) simple things we could have done,” she said.

“We have to educate our society for the day after, because it is close. It could be a month from now,” Evelpidou said.