Let the River Flow: Looking for the Kifissos

A couple of months before the Climate Summit in Paris, Cop21, MELD decided to add its grain of salt and produce an experimental action for Athens and its central river, the Kifissos. Athens is one of the least green cities in Europe and the Kifissos was covered by a highway at the dawn of the Olympic Games.

When I arrived in Athens, people kept mentioning the “potami” (the river) as a geographical locator, but the river was nowhere to be seen and when asked, Athenians were vague and uninformed about its existence.  For the past five years, MELD has been developing a multimedia art work with German artist, Alexander Schellow, 50 Greek experts in the fields of architecture, green chemistry, anthropology among others as well as people living by the river.  The piece has been shown in its different formats in various countries in the world, but we never had the opportunity to show any of the work in Athens.

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For Let the River Flow, we wanted to create a project that would connect the river to the Athenian civic society: inviting the citizens to meet us at the mouth of the river and form a “human” river linking the different districts of this area.  A small gesture to inspire Athens to connect and reclaim its river.  The act of uniting citizens from all walks of life around a river they have never seen (a large majority) and linking them with each other and the river as a catalyst could only bring awareness, but as well emotional links to the participants.

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We have produced several actions in Athens inviting the citizens to participate and in each and every one of them, had a very successful turnout and feedback, both from city officials, and people on the ground.  As usual, we proceeded by calling upon our community and volunteers in Athens.  Though the response was not great, we managed to compile a team of six photographers and filmmakers, as well as 6 volunteers to help us coordinate the making-of the river.  The Municipality of Athens came on board and was going to disseminate the information through their press contacts: business as usual.

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On Saturday morning, the day of the event, in route to the Southern suburbs, where the river plunges in the Sardonic Gulf, I was bombarded by a series of messages from our volunteers saying they were unable to attend.  To make a long story short, we ended up with 2 volunteers, a couple of photographers and around twenty participants. The river was suddenly becoming a smaller stream than planned.  In the midst of the deception of seeing so little engagement and commitment from the civic society to its environment, we had to transform the action and adapt to this peculiar situation.  We were lucky as the participants, mainly women, had a great level of social responsibility and commitment.  Passion and kindness was floating in the air.  Enthusiasm became our fuel.

Our stream started its procession towards the river’s mouth, from the Old Faliro subway station.  We entered the coastal no-man’s land.  In fact, this entire area is an everlasting landfill. The Saronikos Gulf has been the center of Eutrophication because of the untreated sewage pollution discharged from the metropolitan Athens and Piraeus areas and the shipping pollution of the port. Before, the effect of sewage effluent (calculated at 600-750,000 m3 per day) on the benthos of the Saronikos was catastrophic from pollutants, such as hydrocarbons, sediments, heavy metals and PAHs.

Numerous abandoned Olympic facilities populate the area. In the background, separated by the motorway, the old invisible coastline used to be the residence of the golden age of Athens *1920-30s, where Athenians had their secondary homes and glamourous hotels.

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Today we can still find traces of these secondary homes, abandoned or squatted by the homeless.  What was one of the most desirable areas of Athens has become a no-man’s land and a depository for garbage.  An area that is better forgotten.  How can that be?  As we make our way among the recycled Olympic buildings, we reach the mouth of the Kifissos.  Here the river stands facing the Aegean, gorged with water.  We decide to take a short brake to honor the river and understand why it is in such a state.  Access is more than difficult: nobody really knows where it is and there are no signs.  Additionally, there is no pathway to the river.  You have to find it and walk through a hostile landscape, among which plastic bottles and all kind of garbage.  We don’t have access to the river, but GARBAGE does. How ironic!  The sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day, we encounter very few people on our path, aside from some fishermen waiting patiently for the catch of the day.  I certainly would not dare try any fish from this area, between the river’s polluted bank and the seaside where there is very little chance to seize a “healthy” fish.

A few meters away from the mouth, we discover another river, the Illisos, that has been high-jacked for other purposes.  The Illisos has also been covered by roads, legal and illegal settlements and now has been rerouted to facilitate water to a couple of new developments on standby on that very coastline.  Developments located in different urban zones, which often lead to political discussions ending up in using the rivers as such, but leaving them in a total state of abandonment, both in reality and in the collective memory of the Athenians. Whether it is The Niarchos Park, or the Hellinikon project, we are sold on sustainable mega projects, which mostly emphasize the commercialization and privatization of the land. A land that has ceased to belong to the citizens of Athens for a long time and is the pray of local and international developers. This disconnect between the natural environment, the city and it citizens is fueled by political and economic decisions and accepted by the large majority of citizens, including the European commission, which is keener to collect “debt money” than enforce European and Greek environmental laws.

The Niarchos project in Kalithea is commendable for bringing to Athens another lung to the city, as well as a new cultural program, but ignoring the living rivers by its side in the name of politics and economics is not an acceptable proposal in the effort of sustainability.  It is more than time for Athenians to look back at their ancient history and not only at their cultural heritage, but at the inherent connections that exist between the citizens, the gods and Nature.

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