Cyprus: Could water shortage bring peace?

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.

“If the island is reunited, it would be an attractive option,” said Sofoclis Aletraris, director of the Greek Cyprus Water Development Department. But until then, “we cannot depend on a country that is at this point hostile to Cyprus.”

Greek Cypriot Nicos Vassiliou, a consultant and economist, wants to change his government’s mind. He thinks a joint water project for all Cypriots could help build bridges toward peace and has been trying to bring Greeks and Turks together to work on the pipeline.

"If we had the option of Turkish water, it would be cheap enough to use for irrigation,” he said. “We could turn Cyprus into a tropical paradise.”

But Vassiliou fears that time is running out and that soon Turkish plans for the pipeline will be too far along to adapt the pipeline for the needs of the island's Greek inhabitants. Few of his fellow Greek Cypriots, however, agree that water can come before peace.

"We won't even think about buying water from Turkey, which has been occupying our island for so many years, until there is a solution to the Cyprus problem,” said Michalis Lytras, head of PEK, a Greek Cypriot farmer’s union.

It’s not that PEK’s members don’t need the water. During the 2008 drought, water was so scarce that Greek Cypriot farmers were forbidden from irrigating and even municipal areas received piped water for only 36 hours a week. The Greek Cypriot government paid farmers 67 million euros, about $92 million, in compensation and forked out an additional 50 million euros to ship in water by tanker from Greece. But, Lytas says, he distrusts Turkish motives for giving the water to Cyprus. It may start as a gift, he said, citing an old saying, but eventually, they’ll take your whole house.

Instead, the Greek Cypriot government is building a series of massive desalinization plants. Once they’re online, the risk of water shortages like those seen in 2008 will be gone.

But desalinization is expensive and environmentally destructive. The plants need fuel to operate and spew brine into the sea, changing its salinity levels. The new plants will meet Greek Cypriot’s municipal and tourism needs, but won’t provide enough to irrigate the island’s fields. Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of Greek Cypriots’ water usage.

But Aletraris, the Greek Cypriot water director, says they can’t wait for peace and the pipeline. He doubts in any case whether it will ever be built.

“I believe it’s a very naive project,” he said. “It’s pure propaganda.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the annual amount of water that could be carried by the Turkish pipeline.