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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.

“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.