A recent study suggests that the Mediterranean island of Cyprus runs the risk of becoming more like a desert by the end of this century from the effects of climate change. The World’s Aaron Schachter has details.
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MARCO WERMAN: Ethiopia is hardly the only part of the world plagued by drought these days.
Two thousand miles or so to the north, parts of the Middle East, and the eastern Mediterranean, are suffering water shortages as well. One of the worst-hit regions is the island of Cyprus. The World’s Aaron Schachter has our report.
AARON SCHACHTER: I’m standing beside what sounds like a raging Kouris River. But this 10-foot-wide swath of muddy brown water that runs into the Kouris dam represents a trickle compared to what the Greek Cypriot city of Limassol needs, just down below. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Water was once plentiful here. Then in the 1960s, Cyprus started promoting itself as a tourist haven, and officials scrambled to get water for new swimming pools, gardens and golf courses.
GEORGE PERDIKES: For many years the policy was to make drills and take out the water from the earth.
SCHACHTER: George Perdikes is Secretary General of the Greek Cyprus Green Party. He says development helped deplete the island’s groundwater.
PERDIKES: When they destroy the underground water, they tried to make the big dams. Everybody was celebrating that it’s going to be the solution, the final solution for the water problem in Cyprus.
SCHACHTER: But since the late 1980s, rainfall has dropped by 15 percent. Last year was the fourth straight drought year, with half the average rainfall. During recent summers, Cypriots have sometimes found themselves without water for up to four or five days a week. They’ve had to import hundreds of millions of gallons from Greece and Turkey. And experts fear it’s only going to get worse. Nicolas Jarraud is a scientist with the United Nations based in Cyprus.
NICHOLAS JARRAUD: The eastern Mediterranean region, as a result of climate change, is going to face increasing aridity, increasing desertification and a rather smaller amount of rainfall. And this we are very much certain about.
SCHACHTER: One recent study predicted that by the end of the century, the once relatively lush island could become a Saudi-Arabian-like desert. But climate change is only exacerbating a problem that Cypriots helped create. Islanders have been profligate in their use of water. Kyriakos Kyrou works for the Water Development Department in Nicosia. He says officials are just starting to take the problem seriously.
KYRIAKOS KYROU: The situation was getting worse and worse and worse, but the decisions are not being taken by the technocrats. So, it’s very frustrating. We are under tremendous pressure here because we need to produce the water, but in reality you have no say in how the water’s being used.
SCHACHTER: Despite the development binge, the number one offender remains agriculture. Farms suck up three-quarters of Cyprus’s water, often for thirsty crops like citrus and potatoes that are sold outside the country. The UN’s Nicolas Jarraud says Cyprus’s farmers aren’t greedy or callous. They’re just stuck in old ways.
JARRAUD: If one can provide farmers with alternative crops that would per input of water provide more financial returns, for example the production of pomegranates instead of citrus, I think it’s a question therefore of convincing the farmers of the financial benefits and secondly of showing the methods they can use.
SCHACHTER: Of course convincing farmers to change their ways takes time. But many in Cyprus think they have a quicker fix.
BURAK CELIK: The cheapest, and maybe the best way, is now desalination.
SCHACHTER: Burak Celik is a Cypriot environmental engineer.
CELIK: The sea is endless. If you do not destroy the habitat. I mean, maybe if all the countries used the sea, so maybe it will be a problem, but no need for all countries for desalination.
SCHACHTER: There are three desalination projects now in Cyprus and more being planned. Dozens of similar plants exist all over the Mediterranean and Middle East as water shortages continue to grow. But the plants are expensive, they use a lot of energy, and some worry about the impact of the tons of salt dumped from the plants back into the sea. Meanwhile, the broader solution to the region’s water woes requires money and political will. Both are lacking. The small island has been divided into a Turkish north and a Greek south since a conflict in 1974. Turkish and Greek scientists have worked together on water solutions in recent years, but the politicians have yet to reach agreement.
And while the Greek Green Party’s George Perdikes says ordinary Cypriots understand there is a problem, they don’t seem to feel much sense of urgency.
PERDIKES: If you go to the street and speak to the people the majority will say, the Greens are right, saying that we have a problem with water; that Cyprus will be a desert. But then they do nothing. After all, god is blessing our country and the people. <laughs> That’s not wise, I mean, the solution is in our hands.
SCHACHTER: For The World, I’m Aaron Schachter, Nicosia, Cyprus.
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