An Ancient Greek River Stinks With Tragedy Of Modern Industrial Pollution

Name the color, name the odor: Local factories have long been dumping all kinds of pollutants into the river north of Athens. Will the arrival of legendary American activist Erin Brockovich make a difference?

Greece has so much to protect from pollution (
Greece has so much to protect from pollution (
Alain Salles

BOEOTIA - A mini cascade flows onto some flowers and roses before the Asopus River, just below, swallows it up. The scenery could just as well be of a perfectly preserved rustic countryside, if it weren't for the unrelenting, nauseating odor. Just above is a chicken slaughterhouse, and just like most of the businesses in this industrial zone 50 kilometers north of Athens, it dumps its sullied waters into the local water system. A little further down, instead of the smell of chicken feces, the area reeks of ammonia.

At 80-kilometers long, the Asopus is a relatively short river. It eventually empties into the Euripus Strait, an arm of the Aegean Sea next to the island of Euboea. In antiquity, it was a river god, the child of Oceanus and of Thetys. Today, it's the worst kind of modern waterway, polluted by metals dumped by surrounding businesses, turning it red, purple, or black, just like the colors of smoke rising from the factories.

Crisscrossed by mostly underground canals that direct the factory waste waters toward the river, this zone was illegally developed during the military junta (1967-1974) after orders that the country's industry be decentralized. Some of the businesses left Attica, the region around Athens, for neighboring Boeotia in Oinofyta, without any sort of planning. In order to promote development, a decree was issued, which had not been repealed until 2010, authorizing factories to dump their waste into the Asopus River.

The pollution of the river had been denounced before, but the matter gained much more local attention after it was revealed in 2007 that the ground water had traces of dangerous and sometimes carcinogenic substances: hexavalent chromium, cobalt, nickel, magnesium, and arsenic.

The American activist Erin Brockovich—played by Julia Roberts in the movie—who rose to prominence by obtaining damages for victims of hexavalent chromium-polluted water, has launched an international petition about the situation in Asopus. The International Federation for Human Rights sent a July 8 complaint to the Committee on Social Rights at the Council of Europe concerning the health effects of the pollution on nearby inhabitants.

A local priest and his father

Father Iannis Ikonomidis is no Julia Roberts, but he is nevertheless an increasingly public figure. He has become familiar with every nook and cranny of this troubled industrial zone. In the middle of the countryside, hundreds of metallurgical, chemical, and military material businesses coexist alongside fields and crops. Littered throughout this rustic countryside are pieces of airplanes, left by the National Defense Company, considered one of the main polluters.

Ikonomidis arrived in Oinofyta at the age of 10, after a leather manufacturer hired his father as an electrician. "He would come back home completely black. His eyes and his teeth were the only whiteness left, as if he had come out of a mine," the priest recalls.

Father Ikonomidis' activism began in 2000 when he met a chemist working in a household products factory. The business had noticed the quality and efficiency of their products diminishing. The chemist found the culprit: polluted water. "I realized that this water, which was not good for our household appliances, was also the water we were drinking," the priest explains. This is the same water that is used to irrigate the crops, which is then sold in the markets and supermarkets. Indeed, Greek consumers are now avoiding products coming from Boeotia.

During the summer, the bed of the river is generally dry, except when it rains. It is, however, filled with rather clear water when the water company releases it from a nearby lake. "When the company does this, the factories take advantage of it and dump their liquid waste," explains Margarita Karavassili, the special secretary for the environment, energy, and inspection at the Ministry of the Environment.

The inspectors, who are just 40 in number for a country besieged by environmental problems, have played a crucial role in submitting evidence supporting the presence of hexavalent chromium in the Asopus River. Their reports have resulted in financial penalties—and even criminal proceedings—against certain companies.

But for the lawyer Iannis Ktistakis, in charge of the claim for the Hellenic League of Human Rights, a real fix is still elusive: "It's a typical Greek history: we make a lot of noise, but nothing happens."

Read the original article in French

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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