The head of the Spanish branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warns that the proposed bill for coastal development in Greece will lead to the same “dramatic alteration and destruction of the coastline” seen in Spain.

When several weeks ago the Finance Ministry submitted the bill titled ‘Protection of the shoreline and coast’ for public consultation, criticism of it was swift and widespread.

The outcry prompted the government to extend the period of public consultation until after the European elections. While many of the critics of the bill heralded the announcement as a victory, it is possible that the government might still attempt to pass it with amendments.

Many fear that these will be little more than cosmetic and that even a modified bill will still severely curtail environmental protections and open the way for extensive building on the coast and for beach privatizations. This, critics say, will replicate the failed model of intensive development seen in Spain, in effect sacrificing long term sustainable development and healthy communities and ecosystems for short-term revenues and a building boom.

Now adding his voice to those of the critics is one who has seen the effects of just such a building boom firsthand. In an open letter to Yiannis Stournaras and Olga Kefalogianni, Ministers of Finance and Tourism respectively, Juan Carlos del Olmo, head of the Spanish branch of the World Wildlife Fund, has urged the ministers to reconsider the bill which he warns is likely to have ‘disastrous’ consequences’.

Below is the letter in full:

Dear Ministers Stournaras and Kefalogianni,

Alarmed by the prospect of unprecedented loss of valuable coastal ecosystems, due to the draft law on the “Protection of the shoreline and coast”, WWF Spain addresses you with this urgent call to rethink Greece’s policies on coastal conservation and tourism and to lead Greece’s way towards a living economy through a healthy and sustainably managed natural capital.

As I am sure you know, Spain is the Mediterranean country suffering from the most dramatic alteration and destruction of its coastline. Intensive development during the last decades, without environmental consideration, has had disastrous consequences, which Spain will have to address in the coming years.

Currently, 75 per cent of the Spanish coast is urbanized or is under development (at a rate of 8 ha/day during the last 20 years) and the first kilometre of coastline has been completely developed in one third of Spain’s Mediterranean coast. At the same time, about half a million dwellings are empty.

This disproportionate growth of real-estate industry has had a huge environmental cost and has fostered corruption. The increase in population living along the coast and uncontrolled development have caused a profound degradation of the coastal environment, accompanied by unsustainable use of water, land and energy.

Furthermore, important key ecosystems have disappeared or are under severe threat: most of the coastal wetlands have disappeared, 60 per cent of the dunes have been lost, 80 per cent of Posidonia oceanica meadows have been degraded, beaches have regressed and many river channels and streams have been altered.

This environmental degradation of the coast has had not only environmental, but also economic effects. With over 70 per cent of the coastline being occupied, there has been a loss of competitiveness, attractiveness, and environmental quality with negative effects on the quality and stability of tourism. In fact, tourism in Spain has declined during the last years, only benefiting from social and political instability in other Mediterranean countries.

In your own country, Greece, we are already aware of cases where unsustainable coastal development is threatening extraordinary landscapes and sites of unique biodiversity. Such examples include Laganas in the National Marine Park of Zakynthos and the sand dunes and sea turtle habitat in Kyparissia, the two most important nesting sites for Caretta caretta in the Mediterranean. Due to the threats to this globally endangered species your country has been referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union.

In other areas, for example in Rhodes and Crete, intensive development is undermining the future of tourism itself, since the natural capital that is an integral part of the tourist product is also being degraded, whereas coastal destruction in Crete has been reported by scientists as a major threat to soil quality, flood protection and beach stability. Environmental protection of the coastline is a key factor for competitiveness, human welfare, job creation and the preservation and enhancement of natural and cultural centers of interest. In fact, the European Commission has warned that if coastal development is not controlled, it can jeopardize biodiversity, natural resources and cultural heritage.

So taking into account the Spanish experience of recent years, I wholeheartedly urge you to ensure that any legislation affecting the coastline will guarantee the protection of coastal ecosystems and the ecological services which they offer, so that Greece can be internationally recognized as a major tourism destination that respects its key tourist product: nature.