Cooperation for the commons

Google an image of Thessaloniki and hands down you’ll see the city’s iconic White Tower and waterfront. From behind your screen, the water looks good enough to swim in. But here in Thessaloniki, a popular saying goes, “If you jump into the sea of Thermaikos, you’ll come out with three arms, three legs, and a tail.” So better not daydream too much about that dip.

Laughing about your problems helps. What’s even better is sharing them and finding common solutions. This is exactly what Greeks and Bulgarians from either side of the border did. They put their heads together, worked with the Interreg Greece-Bulgaria Programme to get the support they needed, and now several EU-funded projects are dealing head on with various issues, from what’s in the water to how to make the most of it.

For example, there’s Aqua-lity, a project focusing on citizens’ right to quality drinking water. In both Oraiokastro (Greece) and Dimitrovgrad (Bulgaria), the concentrations of certain minerals in the water supply are a cause for concern. A problematic mineral is manganese. Everybody needs manganese, but if you get a lot of it into your system over the years, your memory might start to go downhill. And that’s only one possible side effect! To get this under control, the Municipality of Oraiokastro and the Municipality of Dimitrovgrad joined forces and set up two systems- one to monitor water quality and another to process and sanitize the water.

While Aqua-lity was all about ensuring a fundamental right, the BestU project made a tremendous effort to drive home the importance and value of water. Eager to create “a new culture of water” and instill a sense of responsibility, the BestU team realized that the ideal locations to lay down the building blocks of said culture were none other than schools and kindergartens. So, they got to work and started putting together an educational programme that would be as comprehensive as possible. Today, teachers in the intervention areas have a trainer’s handbook at their disposal and pupils, an easy-to-follow, illustrated guide on saving water. There are also interactive games to play either in the classroom or online at home. One of these games, designed to be played on the floor, is akin to snakes and ladders; you move down if, for instance, you clean with a hose, or up if you turn off the tap when brushing your teeth.

Children playing a floor game and learning how to save water at the same time

They say, “Old habits die hard”. That, however, didn’t stop the BestU project team from reaching out to adults too. Through a number of info days and seminars, farmers, business owners, and residents learnt how they can use water more rationally in their day-to-day lives as well as in their industries. They also got to discover what’s new in the field of water management.

Speaking of what’s new, have you ever heard of a “smart urban irrigation system”? Yes, it exists! And the LYSIS project succeeded in bringing it to three municipalities in the cross-border area: Drama (Greece), Pavlos Melas (Greece), and Blagoevgrad (Bulgaria). Despite the long name, how the system works is actually quite simple. A number of sensors keep track of the time, the temperature, and the level of moisture in the soil, plus a couple more factors. Then, based on the information coming out of these sensors, sprinklers dispense just the right amount of water. Result: local parks stay well-watered and green. There’s more to it though. Drama has way more water than it needs, so over there, the system takes all that extra water and puts into use. Pavlos Melas and Blagoevgrad are the opposite; they don’t have enough. In their cases, the system acts differently and stores the water instead.

Installing a smart urban irrigation system

Nonstop sprinklers aren’t the only way we lose water. Another problem is that good quality water that we could drink ends up being used for things like cleaning, flushing, and gardening – a huge waste, especially when you think of all the energy and chemicals it takes to make raw water drinkable. With this situation in mind, researchers at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki asked, “What about groundwater?” And the Green Pump project was born.

Green Pump, which will be coming to an end in spring 2022, kills three birds with one stone (only metaphorically of course). By extracting groundwater from “shallow aquifers”, a stream of untreated (yet suitable) water will be available for flushing and so on. What makes groundwater a great resource is that it happens to be a source of heat energy. So thanks to “ground source heat pumps”, you get to save energy as well. Can it get any better? The answer is a resounding yes. Getting some of that water out from beneath the land and putting it to other use(s) has the added benefit of lowering the risk of basements getting flooded.

Pretty simple solutions, right? Common also across all of the projects above is working at the local level, investing in lay people, and creating new data and knowledge. It’s still early days to try out the water in Thermaikos, but the integrated and participatory approach that these cross-border projects have adopted and put into practice is bound to contribute to a brighter water future for both Greece and Bulgaria.

Martha, Interreg Reporter at the Interreg Greece-Bulgaria Programme

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