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Our year-long series on climate with National Geographic is visiting Southern Europe this month, where it's hot. On the Greek island of Crete, people are getting a firsthand lesson in just how a slight change in weather patterns because of climate change can cause big problems. Farmland is drying up and people are struggling to find the water they need to irrigate their fields and olive groves, or even water to drink.
For Climate Connections, NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO: This is a summer heat wave that people in Crete won't forget. On the front page of the newspaper, there's a one-word headline in huge type. It says chaos. Scorching temperatures have caused wildfires, water shortages, electricity blackouts, even deaths.
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SHAPIRO: In the town of Agia Varvara, Costas Kaliokannakis is the local official busily trying to fix the problems caused by this heat. It's mid-morning. His office is dark and steamy. Drops of sweat leave a trail across his forehead.
Mr. COSTAS KALIOKANNAKIS (Local Official): (Through translator) We've had it for the last four days. And it's been over 40 degrees Celsius. In some areas around here it actually reached 47 degrees.
SHAPIRO: That's 116 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mr. KALIOKANNAKIS: (Through translator) A lot of the wells have dried up and so we have a problem now with providing water, finding the source for the water.
SHAPIRO: The heat comes after a winter when there was little rainfall.
Mr. KALIOKANNAKIS: (Through translator) I remember this area from my childhood years and I have never seen it this way. This is the first time I've seen that we've completely run out of water.
SHAPIRO: This large island is located about halfway between the Greek mainland and North Africa. Its geography puts it at particular risk from even the smallest shift in weather patterns.
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SHAPIRO: Professor Costas Kosmas brings me to a grassy flat at the bottom of a mountain range. There are two water reservoirs, side by side. Dragonflies dart about and ripple the still water. The big reservoir is just several years old. The small one is thought to date back more than 3,000 years, built by the Minoans, Europe's first great civilization. So we have ancient technology here.
Professor COSTAS KOSMAS (University of Athens): A new technology storing water because they don't have enough water in the region.
SHAPIRO: And so is the technology sort of the same from what...
Prof. KOSMAS: The technology is almost the same.
SHAPIRO: Kosmas teaches soil science at the University of Athens. He represents Greece on various international committees on climate change. He says this year's sultry summer has made people here think even more about the problems caused by heat and drought. He wants them to think, too, about the way people make these problems worse.
(Soundbite of a golf swing)
SHAPIRO: That's the sound of a golfer on Crete's first golf course. Tourism is vital to Crete's economic future. But it takes a lot of water to run the hotels, restaurants and water parks that cater to the tourists, and to keep the parched greens on the golf course from turning brown. Kosmas says the island's precious water should go to farms and homes, not the golf courses.
Prof. KOSMAS: They have invaded in the last four or five years, doing golfs in this land. Since we don't have enough water to irrigate the land, it's not good for this land to make golf.
(Soundbite of noise)
SHAPIRO: Kosmas drives up a rutted mountain road into the high range near Mount Psiloritis. In Greek mythology, Zeus was born in a cave close to here and kept hidden from his father, who wanted to kill him. The professor brings me here to see how trees and vegetation are disappearing. From where we stand, we look up the mountain slope and see a gray moonscape.
Prof. KOSMAS: When the land is degraded and desertified, this affect the climate, affects the economy, affects the environment.
SHAPIRO: The land dries up slowly. Desertification starts small: temperatures rise a bit, rainfall decreases a little. There's less water in rivers, wells and the ground. Farmers can't grow crops. They abandon the land to their sheep and goats.
Prof. KOSMAS: This area now is used as pasture. You will see the animals now down there grazing the land.
SHAPIRO: The land just below where we stand is brown and barren. Sheep eat the shoots of young trees and vegetation before they can grow. In the last decade, the European Union supported agriculture by giving subsidies to sheep farmers. The more sheep you had, the more money you got.
Prof. KOSMAS: Now we have to stop. And European Union now is going to the direction to combine agricultural policy with environmental policy.
SHAPIRO: At the urging of Kosmas and others, the EU will start paying farmers to reduce the number of animals they own. Kosmas says half the land in Crete is at high risk of desertification. A recent United Nations report says the problem isn't just on this Mediterranean island or in sub-Saharan Africa. It now threatens one-third of the world's population.
Back in the town of Agia Varvara, residents have gone three days with no or little water. A sound truck moves slowly through the town telling residents turn off your electricity because work crews need the power to get the water pumps working again.
On a busy street corner, an elderly woman comes to one place where people can still get water, at the village well. Antigone Skoula is dressed in black with a black scarf covering her white hair.
Ms. ANTIGONE SKOULA (Resident, Agia Varvara): (Through translator) They're cutting it off but we do have some water, yes. Every two days or three days we have water.
SHAPIRO: The old woman fills seven plastic bottles and carefully puts each one back in the burlap bag she carries. Then she trudges up the hill on her way home.
To draw water from a well is an ancient practice. In Crete's hot summer it's becomes a necessity again.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR NEWS.
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INSKEEP: You can learn more about climate change and drought at npr.org/climateconnections as well as in National Geographic magazine. Now tomorrow, CLIMATE CONNECTIONS visits Phoenix, Arizona to explore how the human body copes with heat.
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