Scarcity From Public Good To Commodity

Only one year after the publication of the optimistic 1988 report, a severe drought period began that was to last for almost three years (1989-1991). The buoyant optimism that characterized the period before the drought turned on its head and the public discourse on water shifted dramatically: once an abundant resource, a source of national pride and hope, a vehicle for social cohesion, water became discursively constructed as a scarce resource, a source of crisis and conflict, a threat to the life and social cohesion of the "eternal" city and its citizens. The drought became one of the hottest topics and was placed at the centre of media coverage and fervent political and public debates. Great public anxiety was created when the water company decided to disrupt its services as a demand management strategy, and to launch a public awareness campaign with daily announcements counting down the 170 days of water (and life) left for the city.

As a response to the 1989-1991 drought, and after a very intense but remarkably short period of political and scientific debate, the government brought four projects before Parliament in the form of "Emergency Acts" for immediate implementation (YnEXQAE 1990a). The acts stipulated:

1 the implementation of demand-management strategies, including: a new tariff and pricing system, increasing the price of water by up to 300 percent; a public awareness campaign; and the prohibition of heavy water-consuming activities (e.g. car washing, watering gardens, filling swimming pools);

2 the construction of a new dam at Evinos River, which would increase the quantity of water delivered to the Mornos Reservoir;

3 the undertaking of drilling works along the Mornos Reservoir and the banks of Lake

Yliki; and

4 the transportation of water (by means of tankers and new pipelines) from Lake

Trihonida to the Mornos reservoir.

There was no doubt that the implementation of the proposed measures would bear serious social, economic, political and environmental impacts, and thus broad consultation and political debate was in order. Nevertheless, all four Acts were brought before the Greek Parliament in the form of "Emergency Acts", a procedure which is normally reserved for moments of national crisis, and which allows only for very brief discussion in Parliament before an immediate vote is taken. For example, the water transportation Bill and the relative Bill that modified the 1987 Water Resources Law (1739/87) were voted in by the government within the record time of 16 minutes (Proceedings, PAT Assembly of the Greek Parliament, 21/5/93). The justification given by the government for the treatment of these Acts as "National Emergencies" was that such a procedure was judged to be absolutely necessary in order to "save the city of thirst". Nature was causing an indisputable crisis and there was no time for debating. Immediate urgent action was the only way to overcome the crisis.

Both the necessity and the efficiency of the proposed "emergency measures" came under scrutiny by independent academics and environmental NGOs (Vasilakis and Bourbouras 1992). In fact, the very existence of a crisis of water scarcity was questioned, since even the exact amount of water available in the city's main reservoir was a matter of dispute. Each ministry published its own numbers, defending its own interests and strategies. The estimate provided by the Ministry of Agriculture was 400x106 m3; that of the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Technology was 221x106m3; while the water company itself estimated the water available at Mornos reservoir at 580x106-630x106 m3. (YnEXQAE 1990a; Karavitis 1998). Thus, the threat of an imminent water scarcity crisis, the extent of the urgency of the situation, as well as the genuineness of the perilous "170 days of water" were never fully verified, despite the dramatic sensationalization of water politics. However, these debates came after the voting in of the Emergency Acts and did not stop the immediate implementation of most of them.2

Still, the invocation of the crisis brought about by a prolonged drought period is not enough to account for the urgency with which the situation was vested, the confusion around water availability and the dramatic shift from discourses of water abundance to discourses of water scarcity and from the depiction of water as a public good to its depiction as a scarce commodity (see Bakker 2000). Indeed, it would not be possible to comprehend and analyze the socio-political dimensions of the Athenian water crisis and the swift implementation of the disputed "Emergency Measures", without looking at the particular socio-political configuration with which the drought period coincided. For the 1989-1991 drought overlapped with one of the most turbulent periods in contemporary Greek politics. An economic and political scandal, in which the socialist government was allegedly involved while at the height of its popular support, led the country to a deep and long political crisis. Three rounds of national elections were carried out within a period of less than two years. The first round of national elections, in June 1989, coincided with the first dry summer period. The elections failed to deliver a majority to any single political party and a "transitional" government was formed to carry the country to the next round of elections. However, the second round of elections (November 1989) equally failed to deliver the parliamentary majority to any single political party. An "ecumenical" government was then formed through an unprecedented alliance between the conservatives and the left. This government stayed in power for a short period with the aim of overseeing a project of national political "catharsis". The third round of elections, carried out in April 1990 in the midst of trials of former socialist ministers, led to a conservative party victory (Chadjipadelis and Zafiropoulos 1994; Zafiropoulos and Chadjipadelis 2001). This chapter will argue that it was the fusion of this political crisis with a natural crisis that facilitated the almost uncontested implementation of the proposed "Emergency Acts", despite their questionable soundness and transparency. In what follows, I shall focus on the implementation of the first two emergency measures (price hikes and a new dam project) in order to foreground the social, political, and economic implications of their swift implementation and the role of the discursive construction of a "crisis" situation as a facilitator for the implementation of a particular neoliberal socio-environmental agenda.

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