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In conversation with Eleni Myrivili, Chief Heat Officer for the City of Athens

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Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

Introduce yourself and your role

I am Eleni Myrivili and I’m the Chief Heat Officer for Athens. I also work as a senior advisor for the Arhst Rock Resilience Center of the Atlantic Council and the Armstrong Resilience Center, which is based in Washington. I’ve recently also been appointed as Global Chief Officer- which is a joint appointment from the UN habitat and the Arhst Rock Resilience Center. So, I’ll be working with UN habitat on this role of helping cities deal with heat and building heat resilience.

Describe the impact that the climate crisis has had on Athens

For Athens, the climate crisis has mostly meant more extreme heat. We also have flash floods. So we do have sudden cloud bursts that bring down a lot of water in a very short period of time meaning that the city has to deal with land erosion on our hills. So, we do have to consider land erosion and also flooding of streets but that’s more localised the events. We haven’t had any serious big flooding events in the city of Athens. The main problem that we’ve had has to do with rising heat and heat waves as well as peri-urban fires that compound on the problem and of course the urban heat island effect that exacerbates it even further for the center of the city.

There has been a very clear increase in the frequency, intensity and length of extreme heat over the last three decades. We know that, this part of the world, the Eastern Mediterranean has been heating up 20% more than the global average, so in Greece right now we are already close to 1.9 degrees Celsius from the pre-industrial levels. In the summer of 2021, we had a record-breaking heatwave which was the second one that summer. That heatwave lasted for three weeks and was devastating because it was towards the end of the summer and it happened after a long period of drought so it created hundreds of wildfires. In the city, temperatures reached 45 degrees Celsius which we haven’t seen before in Athens.

Lycabettus Hill

What has Athens been doing to tackle extreme heat?

In my role as Chief Heat Officer, I have a real focus on initiatives that not only mitigate extreme heat but also protect the most vulnerable. I have been planning our strategy around three key pillars- awareness, preparedness and redesign.

  • Awareness
    Awareness is really, really important because heat waves are, I mean, you’ve probably heard this a hundred times, but heatwaves are a silent killer. Of all the different extreme weather events that are linked to climate change heatwaves have the highest mortality rate, but they are still not discussed or represented adequately. Partly that is because we can’t isolate exactly the role of extreme heat in mortality. If someone goes to the hospital with a heart attack, then the doctor will write down heart attack and they might not think about the impact of temperature. So awareness raising, especially in countries like Greece where we are used to heat, is really important. It’s the fact that people don’t understand heat exposure and what it means for their health. So this is an important aspect that we have to raise awareness around, that this is something that our bodies are not made for the temperatures we are increasingly experiencing. I think as well because heatwaves don’t damage the built environment, they don’t damage assets, they damage bodies, it’s harder to link them with economic loss and therefore, sadly, harder to take action. So not only are the effects often invisible but the cost is as well. We really need to figure out how to talk with people about extreme heat and how to make sure that we better understand the impact of heatwaves. Part of what we did in Athens in relation to that, was that we started this categorization of heat waves, which is really a game changer because it links methodological data to health data. We have been able to look back at the previous three decades and isolate every extreme heat event in Athens, looking at the impact and the characteristics. There was an algorithm that was created that identifies the correlation of heat and its characteristics to health risks and basically to mortality. We’re also forecasting upcoming heatwaves and identifying which category they belong to. We have three categories, and it goes from dangerous to very dangerous, to extremely dangerous so it’s just category one, two and three– they don’t have names. In Seville, which is the other city that did the same thing, they also name heatwaves, which is an important aspect for raising awareness.
  • Preparedness
    The second thing that we did have to do with preparedness, which has to do with the short-term things that we can do to help the people that are the most vulnerable to heat waves. So we did a lot of things together with the Hellenic Red Cross to build capacity within the municipality. With people that come in contact with, for example, old older people that live alone, we have a big program called “Help at Home” which supports people in preparing for extreme heat. We also created a hotline for people to call and find out more things about heat and we created a website which included information about the algorithm we created and is linked to the meteorological website that everyone uses in Athens. The website also gives advice about directions on how to protect yourself, how to make your home cooler, and how to help somebody that seems to be having trouble during extreme heat. We have also worked with local originations who support immigrants and refugees in the city to make sure they were receiving support, information and updates. We’re also working with schools and have set up a network of information dissemination through teachers and school administrators. Of course, we have also opened cooling stations across the city.

  • Re-design
    Finally, for re-design we are creating three green corridors with funding from the European Investment Bank, and pocket parks. We are also re-locating the city’s main football stadium to one of the hottest parts of the city and creating a huge park around it which will be the biggest park in Athens. I’m very very worried about the future availability of water. Right now, we are either bringing it from very far away or drilling down into the aquafer which might not be possible in the future and it seems insane to use drinking water for irrigation. To tackle this, we are working with eight other municipalities to use wastewater from an aqueduct that has existed since antiquity to irrigate the new green space in the city.

We’re also hoping to start doing this very cool thing called sewer mining which is a container that can tap into sewage lines below green spaces and turns brown water into safe irrigation water. It is not very expensive and is mobile so can be moved between green spaces so I think this will become increasingly important over the coming years.

In terms of adapting green spaces, are you changing the types of plants you are planting?

So we are creating a booklet of guidelines that the Resilience Center is actually funding specifically for this part of the world. The guidelines include information about what kind of trees, about water use, hard surfaces are best for resilience. This is a very important question because I think we need to think wisely about what kind of plants we’re, we’re going to be using from this point onward in all of the different types of parks and green areas that we create. One example is that we have a lot of mulberry trees in Athens, around 20% of the trees in the city are Mulberry trees and around three years ago a particular kind of beetle that attacks mulberries appeared in Athens. In the first summer, we lost a few trees, by the second summer (2020) we lost around 5% of Mulberry trees and by 2021 that number had jumped from 5% to 30%. To a large extent, this was due to the rising heat in the city which is bringing in more pests and diseases.

What is your perspective on the adaptation funding gap and how has Athens overcome funding challenges?

I think that on the whole global funding for adaptation is lagging behind. Mitigation was the first thing that people focused on which makes sense but the whole idea of inequity brings the issue of adaptation to the front. We need to make sure that the people who are really suffering and who will suffer are not being left behind. This isn’t just across the Global South but vulnerable people everywhere.

There isn’t enough adaptation funding and people have just started waking up to that fact. Over the last 3-5 years there has been more of a focus on getting funding for adaptation projects. I think a huge part of this is wrapping our brains around the fact that some funding will not have high returns on investment. Part of the problem is that with mitigation, you can get return of investment but that is not the same for adaptation, it is much more about protecting resources and people from damage which people are much more reluctant to do because the systems we have set up don’t encourage us to plan sustainably.  So, to a large extent funding for adaptation will have to come from the public sector but it is important to try and bring the private sector

I’m a little concerned about our ability to leverage the investment we need.

How is Athens overcoming these funding challenges?

We have the incredible luck of being part of the EU. Greece is one of the countries that have benefited enormously from funding, especially for infrastructures. I mean, a lot of it, for example, in agriculture has done as much damage to some level because it’s subsidies and it didn’t work very well. But with infrastructure, we’ve benefited a lot. But now it has to do also with resilient infrastructure and actually bringing in funding that’s linked to the types of infrastructure that’s more sustainable. A lot of this is coming from the EU because of the green deal and because they are raising their standards as well in the types of things, they ask us to deliver. It’s still, again, baby steps and it needs to be mainstreamed a lot more.

But with Athens, for example, we got this European investment bank loan a few years ago in 2017, which was 55 million euros with a very low-interest rate and part of that has gone to green infrastructure and nature-based solutions. This is the money that is supporting the three green corridors and the sustainable water management. This money has come from the Natural Capital Finance Facility and the whole loan was anchored in our resilience strategy for 2030 and that was based on this, it was anchored, this, this whole loan was anchored on the, the, um, asset resilient strategy for 2030. Most of the other funding has come from the national and local governments.

A lot of the time it’s a matter of political will and where the mayor wants to prioritise for funding. I think some funding has also come from the Fund for Recovery and Resilience that came in during covid. It is sad because I think within the EU sustainability plans have been derailed by the war in Ukraine and by the pandemic. I think we would have been a lot further ahead if it weren’t for those two events.

What have been the main successes and challenges of all the work that you’ve done?

Challenges? There are tons. Yeah, sometimes it feels like it’s all challenges.

  • Priority
    I think maybe the most important challenge is that these issues are not given priority. That it’s not considered the first and foremost issue that we have to protect ourselves from and put at the forefront of all of our policies. Climate change is still an afterthought in my country. When events are happening, of course, everybody sees them as a crisis and as a priority but then it kind of drops back and other things like the economy, political issues, social welfare issues become more important. So this is a big, big issue. The whole thing of putting climate change at the front of people’s minds.
  • Capacity building
    Another big, big challenge has to do with capacity building within the different kinds of levels of people that are engaged in projects. People are used to doing specific things in specific ways, and now they have to shift because we’re talking about a new reality. So they have to learn how to do things differently.
  • Procurement
    A crux of the whole matter is procurement- we have to change the way we procure in the city and the way we design projects (procurement’s a big part of the way we design) So that’s a very, very big challenge. Also just having people to learn how to design things differently and to, to understand things differently.
  • Data
    Another challenge is data. Which we don’t have enough of for heat. We don’t have enough data for the impacts of heat to our economies, to our mortality and morbidity, to hospitalisations, to rising violence in communities, especially gendered violence, to tourism, to all of these things. We need data for that so that we know how to create data-driven policies that tackle specific things in the right way.

Successes:

  • Collaboration
    Great collaborations are happening. For example, our work with the Hellenic Red Cross and the work we are doing with the eight other local authorities have both helped to share knowledge and build capacity. Also, the work between scientists and policy makers has been really important.
  • Categorising heatwaves
    This whole new approach to categorisation of heat waves is very cool because it has created new types of knowledge and it has brought science closer to policy-making which is really important in raising awareness and generating evidence.
  • The position of Chief Heat Officer
    The position of Chief Heat Officer has created a lot of attention which is another big win because it really helps a lot with bringing this issue to the front and having more cities discuss it and take it seriously.

What other cities do you take inspiration from in your work?

The first that comes to mind is Amsterdam, Paris and Rotterdam. All of those cities are kind of wild in how much interesting stuff they are creating and how they’re embedding the innovation into the workings of the city and into the work of the administration. I’m not talking about heat in particular but all the things they are doing around adaptation are very inspirational.

In Athens, it can be hard to do things that are different as there is often a lot of backlashes and there is often not enough capacity or desire to sit down and think strategically about how we want to innovate and where we are willing to take risks and deal with failure. It’s interesting because I think both Paris and Amsterdam, and Dutch cities more broadly, seem to be more open to thinking strategically and trying different approaches.

Copenhagen is also doing amazing things to get rid of cars and they have developed a master plan for dealing with flooding. Cities in Sweden as well have done amazing things with sustainable food networks. There is so much going on to take inspiration from.

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