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Cyprus: Could water shortage bring peace?

A pipeline from Turkey could supply enough water for all of Cyprus — if Greek Cypriots decide to use it.

During Cyprus' 2008 drought, Senol Akmehmet, a Turkish Cypriot farmer, had to buy water shipped in by truck to keep his sheep and goats alive. He hopes the planned water pipeline — which will bring water from Turkey to a dam near his village — will end the area's frequent water shortages, but says there will be enough water to share with Greek Cypriots too. (Nicole Itano/GlobalPost)

GECITKOY, Northern Cyprus — When Cyprus lay dry and parched with drought in 2008, Senol Akmehmet had to buy water shipped in by truck to keep his goats and sheep alive. He couldn’t plant any crops. The local reservoir, called Gecitkoy like Akmehmet’s village, dried up and disappeared.

This winter the rains have been good and fish are again swimming in the reservoir. But the drought, which caused great hardship across the island, has pushed Turkish and Turkish Cypriot officials to move forward with a decades-long dream of building a massive underwater pipeline to bring water from Turkey.

“We won’t run out of water again because Turkey will bring it,” said Akmehmet, who met a group of Turkish engineers doing a feasibility study in the area. “Men came here and told us that they will give water to the Greek Cypriots too because the water will be for all Cypriots.”

The planned 48-mile-long pipeline, which will bring 75 million cubic meters of water a year from Turkey to the Gecitkoy resevoir, could provide the arid island with enough water for both Greek and Turkish Cypriots, officials say. But in divided Cyprus, even this most basic element of life is hostage to political divisions.

Mustafa Sidel, the former head of the Turkish Cypriot water authority, says the idea of a water pipeline dates back to the 1960s, before the island was partitioned into Greek and Turkish sides. But for years, the pipeline remained a dream, stalled by lack of money, technological hurdles and the island’s political divisions. In 1974, a Greek-sponsored coup prompted Turkey to invade the northern third of the island. Today, the Greek state is a member of the European Union, while only Turkey recognizes the Turkish-controlled north.

Both sides of the island were hit hard by the 2008 drought, but the poorer, more arid Turkish north suffered most. Crops across the island died, but Greek Cyprus imported water to meet the needs of households and the tourist industry. Turkish Cypriots were reduced to using brackish groundwater. If it is built, the pipeline — a massive feat of engineering — could provide a long-term solution to the island’s water problems.

“This would be the first time something like this was done,” said Sidel. “We can’t say it’s the biggest pipeline, but it’s the most difficult, through the deepest water.”

The Turkish government says it will fund the pipeline project and construction should begin soon on a dam on the Dragon River in Turkey, which is the first step toward making the pipeline a reality. Turkish Cypriot authorities have already offered to share the water with Greek Cypriots, calling it the “water for peace” pipeline. But Greek Cypriots say they will only accept water from Turkey if the island is reunited. After 17 months of peace talks between leaders of the two sides with little tangible progress, hope for any imminent solution is fading.