ATHENS, Oct 15 (Reuters) Greece is struggling to contain coastal pollution which threatens its renowned azure waters and golden coastlines, the main sources of its booming tourism industry.
''A few years ago I swam here every day but in the past two summers it is just too dirty so I just play on the beach,'' said 37-year-old Stavros Georgiadis, who plays racquet ball on the beach of Alimos along the capital's coast almost daily.
''I don't know if it is actually dirtier but it just looks filthier, more stuff floating on the water -- I'm not going to swim in there.'' Most coastal cities, including the capital Athens, northern port city of Thessaloniki and Patra in southwestern Greece, are said by the United Nations and the European Environment Agency to be major pollutants due to partly untreated industrial and household wastewater.
''Some areas in the bays of Athens and Thessaloniki are complete dead zones. For some, there is no chance of ever recovering,'' Greenpeace Greece Director Nikos Haralambidis told Reuters.
In a joint report issued last year, the UN Environment Programme and the European Environment Agency said the bay of Elefsis near Athens with about 1,000 industrial plants, including shipyards, iron and steel works and refineries, was polluted by heavy metals, among other things.
''On a scale of one to 10 I would rate their water quality somewhere in the middle,'' the United Nations' Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP) coordinator Paul Mifsud told Reuters.
He said while other areas of Greece may get a better rating such as some of the islands or areas with lower population or industry accummulation, the cities' waters are suffering from poorly treated urban and industrial wastewater.
BEACHES ARE OFF-LIMTS The nearby Saronic Gulf washing the capital's southern coastline is similarly polluted with industrial and primary treated wastewater from the city's sewers.
Many beaches have been declared off-limits for swimmers including some along the Faliron coast some five km from the city centre.
Once known for a multitide of pristine beaches along its coast, Athens has seen many of them declared unfit for swimming as the city's population and industrial activity grows in line with the country's economic development in recent decades.
Athens beaches are frequented mainly by local people: tourists visit only briefly during stopovers in the capital on their way to the Aegean islands.
Athens' only sewage treatment plant has yet to operate fully despite repeated government pledges. It is currently not processing sewage through the full cycle, but drying and storing it until the facility is fully operational.
The environment ministry did not return calls for comment on when the plant will be fully operating, removing chemicals and heavy metals from the processed sewage.
Greece is also staunchly backing its powerful shipping industry's opposition to an EU directive against polluting ships.
This position will grow in importance with the completion in 2009 of a Russian-Bulgarian-Greek oil pipeline that will run from the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas to northeastern Greece.
Larger oil tankers will criss-cross the Aegean than those that can currently sail through the narrow and congested Bosphorus Straits, heightening the risk of oil spills and potential environmental disasters.
HOUSING BOOM The government is beginning to encourage the construction of tens of thousands of holiday homes across the country, to tap into the foreign homeowners' market that has served countries like Spain and Portugal well over the past years.
Environmental groups warn these homes will put a further strain on the country's water pollution and its coastline.
With a third consecutive year of tourism growth since the Athens 2004 Olympics, Greece will host about 17 million foreigners this year.
A further rise is forecast for the coming year. Tourism accounts for about 18 per cent of Greece's GDP and roughly one in five jobs.
With 40 per cent of the Mediterranean's 46,000-km coastline already covered in concrete, action is necessary to manage the coastal zone, Mifsud said.
Greece's coastal holiday homes projects would need to be monitored closely, Mifsud said.
''If this issue is not addressed, then that (40 per cent) number will be more than 50 percent in 20 years,'' Mifsud said.
''Definitely there are solutions to these problems but it is a question of priority,'' Mifsud said. ''I would say I am hopeful and the signs are there that Greece wants to address environmental issues more actively.'' Reuters SS DB1210