ATHENS, Greece — A severe nine-day heat wave in Europe has broken 100-year temperature records. Throughout southern Europe and the Balkans, unusually high temperatures caused many deaths, including 29 in Romania where temperatures reached 113 degrees in Bucharest, the highest in 90 years.
Here in Greece, 11 people died and more than 50 were hospitalized due to the heat wave, in which temperatures soared to 116 degrees, the highest on record since 1897. Several deaths were noted in Italy, Turkey and Cyprus as well.
Most of the major cities in southeastern Europe were woefully unprepared for the record heat, running electricity on ancient power systems that cannot cope with such high temperatures.
Greece is an example. Here the majority of the electric power stations are 30 to 50 years old. During the worst days of the heat wave, the demand for electricity was 10,512 megawatts, essentially maxing out a system whose total capacity is 11,000 megawatts.
DEI, the public electric company, has been steadily privatized over the past few years, with company shares opened up to the highest bidders, with the claim that this would provide better service. The conservative government, in an attempt to pave the way for full privatization of the company, moved to lay off 7,000 employees (out of 28,000) this year and to significantly increase the cost of electricity for consumers. The public has been forced to pay an average 6 percent annual increase in electricity rates over the past five years.
Yet even electric company officials admit that poor maintenance and limited personnel were the reason for the frequent blackouts and power cuts throughout the latest heat crisis.
The Communist Party of Greece said the continual rate increases “reveal how great a lie it is that the privatization of DEI is for the benefit of the working class. The only solution is an exclusively-public energy supplier in the service of the people’s needs.”
Cuts in government spending for public health services since 2000 mean that public hospitals and services are run with skeleton staffs and on old electrical systems. In many hospitals throughout Greece, air conditioning units could not function because they were in disrepair, and power outages of four to eight hours and more meant that health services were severely disrupted.
Public transportation services were also disrupted as more than 370 buses in Athens alone (in a fleet of 1,850) did not run because their air conditioning units were broken due to lack of spare parts.
Trade unions took measures in many workplaces to ensure that workers stopped work where temperatures were dangerously high, and put pressure on the government for general steps to protect the working population. The Construction Workers’ Union took the lead, warning bosses to adhere to contract clauses which allow work stoppages at temperatures of 100 degrees or more. In many workplaces, employees, with the support of their union local, took on-the-spot actions to protect workers’ health.
To make matters worse, forest fires broke out in Italy and Greece, spurred by the extreme temperatures. More than 100 fires burned steadily over a period of days in Greece, resulting in a dramatic decrease in public forestland. Mount Parnitha in the Attica Basin lost more than 10,000 acres in a six-day fire that burned out of control due to government negligence. Mount Parnitha has been a key natural source of cool air for much of overpopulated and polluted Athens.
Several thousand demonstrators, blowing whistles and chanting, “Shame on you,” gathered outside Parliament here July 8 to protest the government’s mishandling of the Parnitha fire. They are demanding tougher forest protection laws, and charge that the government has promoted development projects at the expense of the environment.
A poll published the same day in the weekly Proto Thema newspaper found that 55 percent of Greeks personally held conservative Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis responsible for failing to deal with the fires adequately.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.