Irrigation, Water Needs, Cannot Trump Nature

     (CN) – While the need for irrigation and public drinking water may justify the damming of a Greek river, Europe’s highest court said the project must incorporate environmental protection.
     For more than 20 years, Greek authorities have been working to partially divert the River Acheloos in western Greece into the River Pinios in eastern Greece. The plan would provide irrigation, drinking water and hydroelectric power to cities and towns in the Greek state of Thessaly.
     But a number of local authorities and environmental groups sued Greece’s minister for the environment to cancel the project, and Greek judges ultimately overturned several proposed versions of the project. In the meantime, the European Union passed Natura 2000, a sweeping package of legislation that created an ecological network of protected areas across the continent – including both rivers in question.
     Trying to sort out the litigation for the latest approved river diversion – and in light of the Natura 2000 rules – Greece’s court asked the Court of Justice of the European Union to clarify several points of law.
     Though Greece’s water diversion plans occurred before Natura 2000 took effect in 2009, the Luxembourg court ruled Tuesday that member states had notice as early as 2000 that they would need EU approval of any potential major changes to their water-management plans. Member states are not necessarily precluded from diverting rivers or building dams, such projects must align with the aims of the EU law, according to the ruling.
     Natura 2000’s sites of community importance (SCI), which predate approval of the Greece dam project, also includes the River Acheloos delta and several lakes implicated by the plans, the court found. Greece was obligated to prohibit projects that compromised the ecological characteristics of those sites, according to the court.
     If a project must be completed for “imperative reasons of overriding public interest, including those of a social or economic nature,” the reasons must be of such importance that they can be weighed against Natura 2000’s goal of conservation, the ruling states.
     “Irrigation and the supply of drinking water meet, in principle, those conditions and are therefore capable of justifying the implementation of a project for the diversion of water in the absence of alternative solutions,” the judges added. “However, where the SCI concerned hosts a priority natural habitat type and/or a priority species, the only considerations which may be raised, under the [legislation] are those relating to human health or public safety, to beneficial consequences of primary importance for the environment or, further to an opinion from the [European] Commission, to other imperative reasons of overriding public interest.
     “Since the commission has not, in the present case, been asked to give an opinion, the court must examine whether irrigation and the supply of drinking water may fall within the considerations stated in the preceding paragraph,” the court wrote. “As regards irrigation, it is evident that it cannot in principle qualify as a consideration relating to human health or public safety. On the other hand, it appears more plausible that irrigation may, in some circumstances, have beneficial consequences of primary importance for the environment. In contrast, the supply of drinking water is, in principle, to be included within considerations relating to human health.
     “In any event, it is for the referring court to assess whether the project at issue in the main proceedings does in fact adversely affect the integrity of one or more SCIs hosting a priority natural habitat type and/or a priority species.”
     Project approval hinges on the degree to which water diversion and project scale will impact on the environment. A negative impact does not necessarily spell rejection, however, the court said.
     “Even if the conversion of a natural fluvial ecosystem into a largely man made fluvial and lacustrine ecosystem were to have a negative impact on the integrity of sites which are part of the Natura 2000 network, it does not necessarily follow that consent may not be given to the project which causes that conversion,” the ruling states.
     “The main aim of that directive is to promote the maintenance of biodiversity, taking account of economic, social, cultural and regional requirements, the directive makes a contribution to the general objective of sustainable development,” the judges added. “The maintenance of such biodiversity may in certain cases require the maintenance, or indeed the encouragement, of human activities.
     “The member state is to take all compensatory measures necessary to ensure that the overall coherence of Natura 2000 is protected, must be applied in the light of the objective of sustainable development …. [and the law] permits, in relation to sites which are part of the Natura 2000 network, the conversion of a natural fluvial ecosystem into a largely man made fluvial and lacustrine ecosystem provided that the conditions referred to in that provision of the directive are satisfied.”

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