WWF Hellas: Interview on Crete’s network of volunteers to monitor wetlands

This interview by Thanos Giannakakis Coordinator of the program “Conservation of Greek island wetlands”, WWF Greece is focused on the network of volunteers established on the island of Crete in order to monitor the state of the island’s local wetlands.

1. Which are the main problems faced by wetlands in Crete?

Overall, Crete has 209 wetland sites of which 107 are natural, the rest are artificial. Of the natural wetlands, 30% face serious degradation problems and it is expected that in the next few years they will lose their natural functions or will disappear completely. It is indicative that since 2007 when WWF Greece began working in Crete making an inventory of the wetlands, twelve wetland sites have disappeared altogether. The most important reasons for this degradation in Crete- as in other Greek islands- come form the pressure to develop touristic areas and to urbanize coastal areas. The most serious threats faced by island wetlands in order of importance are the following: solid waste disposal, land filling, clearing of wetland vegetation, expansion of agricultural lands, building and opening of roads. Other important degradation activities are the off road movement of vehicles (cars and motorbikes), use of wetlands as parking areas during the summer months and the pollution of the water from urban and industrial waste.

2. What is your mission regarding the protection of wetlands?

In 2004, WWF Greece took on the initiative to inventory the wetlands of the Aegean islands and to promote actions to effectively conserve them. Until then the knowledge on the number, importance and problems faced by island wetland ecosystems was rather fragmented, despite the fact that there were various reports highlighting their importance.
The important results brought about by the inventory program gave rise to the need of a similar program in Crete and the Ionian islands and so in 2007 the inventorying of wetlands in the rest of the Greek islands began. Today, as part of the program “Protection of Greece’s island wetlands” we have recorded 813 natural and artificial wetlands in 75 islands.  The original objectives of the project was not only to inventory and monitor the state of these wetlands but also to
– stop their degradation ( through trying to create a suitable legal framework, drawing up complaints etc)
– develop best practice examples of conservation and management of island wetlands (creation of a network of wetlands that will become role models of effective conservation and integrated management)

3. Can you please describe the project you are running in Crete with local volunteers?

Since 2007 that WWF Greece has been working in Crete, there have been many citizens that have provided us with information on the degradation of their local wetlands. In order to use this momentum and because due to the program there was already a WWF office in Crete, in February 2011 a network of “active citizens” was put into action for the monitoring of the state of wetlands in the island. The network was founded based on the following philosophy: to build local capacity so that at the end of the project the experience and knowledge of the programme researchers will be sustained by the citizens so that they can continue protecting the islands wetlands. In order to support this network, a WWF Greece employee is solely occupied with the general supervision of the network and coordinates the volunteers, with the assistance of other program researchers.
The first call saw the response of almost 80 volunteers from all over Crete. Each one of them “adopted” one or more natural wetlands and took the responsibility of monitoring it through monthly visits and by recording human interventions like the disposal of rubble, land filling, building etc. Also, every volunteer has been given a water quality tester kit so they can systematically measure water quality indicators in their area of responsibility like the pH, dissolved oxygen concentration, nitrates, phosphates, BOD and the opacity. At the end of each wetland visit the volunteers send a short report to the program coordinator mentioning any degradation problems. In case any problems are found and are judged as significant, the network coordinator, with the help of the Citizen Support Group Legal Team of WWG Greece write a complaint letter to the relevant public services inquiring on the legality of these interventions.

4. How are you planning to sustain this network of volunteers? Do you think it can be replicated in other regions or countries?

Naturally, coordinating volunteer networks is a difficult project. One must always be ready to inform the volunteers of what is happening, to receive and process the data provided by them, to train them and finally to inspire them on the purpose of their work. To achieve these, the volunteers participate in life long learning seminars, meetings as well as events that aim to present the actions of the network to the local communities. Also, the volunteers receive a newsletter which contains the important news from their visits and the actions of the network.
The operation and organisation of the network in Crete is one of the priorities of WWF Greece and of the programme “Protection of Greece’s Island wetlands”. This activity is very important also because it aims to provide us with the experience of creating such volunteer networks in other Greek islands. Already in some islands for example Lesvos, Limnos, Paros, Andros, Skyros and others, a small “red alert” network is in operation that consists of local environmental organisations and citizens that are in contact with WWF Greece. This network has provided important results concerning the timely warning in cases of wetland degradation. We can report that until today over 60 cases of degradation with corresponding mail towards the public services have been carried out.
So, based on the experience from Crete’s volunteer network as well as the presence of “active citizens” in other island we are convinced that Crete is only the beginning and that the network can expand to other places in Greece or even other places in Europe and the Mediterranean. The MedWet network could contribute towards this direction.

5. Do you have some examples of success stories to share with our partners?

Even before the establishment of the “official” network in early 2011, there have been successful interventions by working with “active citizens” in Crete. Such examples include the mobilization of local communities in Malia, Irakleion and Almyros, Agios Nikolas in order to prevent degradation phenomena and ultimately promote the protection of wetlands. This cooperation grew after the establishment of the network and has brought about important activities in promoting wetland sites like for example the delineation with fixed poles in the wetlands of Almyros in Agios Nikolas and the bog of the Malia river in collaboration with the Ecological Movement Miramvellou and Sarpidonistas respectively).
Another case is Moronis in Souda, Chania which in recent decades has been used as a dumpsite for garbage and inert materials. While initially there were plans for urbanization of the natural environment of the wetland, the active involvement of volunteers from WWF Greece led to the abandonment of these plans. Finally, local citizens and the Municipality of Souda, decided to remove the inert materials and to restore and promote the wetland. So far, 1 / 3 of the dumped materials has been removed, approximately 10.000 m3 and the project will be completed in the coming year.
Ultimately, what emerges as the most important aspect of this network of volunteers is that people don’t simply report negative interventions on wetlands but also proactively react and take initiative.  We hope this network will provide the impetus so that more people become more aware and active for the protection of these fragile ecosystems.