IT NEVER RAINS BUT IT POURS
Water in Cyprus
From wild, dangerous and exhilarating, mud brown in colour and rolling down a swollen Pedieos River to just two buckets of clean water a day, delivered door-to-door by a tanker lorry. When it comes to water, my most vivid childhood memories are a case of extremes.
It was 1973, I think, a year of bad, bad drought. The water tanker would roll along the street and each household got to fill two big buckets. That was the ration for the day, for drinking, cooking, washing (not much of that was done) and for flushing the toilet. The taps often gurgled and sometimes spat, but did not actually run for days on end. We drank a lot of milk that summer.
A few years later, and my father had taken us four kids to witness the flooded Pedieos pour through down-town Nicosia. I knew there was a bridge in that part of town – we’d driven over it often enough – but had never really thought of it as a bridge over a river. But that day, that day it was a terrifying rush of wild, raging water, filling the usually dry river bed to bursting point, literally. The water was a rich, earthy brown and tumbled and churned like some mad tangle of frothing serpents. “If you fall in, I won’t come after you,” was my father’s dead-pan warning. I’d never heard my father so blunt, but it made the point and we could see why. Any act of ‘saviour’ bravery following a careless child’s slip on the muddy river-side path and into that torrent would have been foolish and futile.
As a child at school, I was taught what was plain enough to see in the arid landscape around us: that Cyprus was a dry island. What’s more its rainfall was hardly ever reliable and often unpredictable. Never rains, but it pours. We heard of the need to ‘save every drop’ of water, and shocking numbers about how much water a dripping tap wastes. We were also taught some really good stuff about erosion and the need to guard against it. The need to keep watersheds vegetated and how, by simply steering the tractor to plough along contours rather than across them, a farmer could cut gully erosion, save tons of soil and keep rainwater in the field. Plain logic, it seemed like…still does. We were also taken on a school trip to see the new Lefkara Reservoir in the Machairas Mountains, with its amazing concrete precipice of dam wall. And so much water stored up behind it! This was the brave new world of damming every river and torrent and the state’s mantra of ‘not a drop of fresh water to the sea!’ Later came the technological ‘miracle’ of desalination and the days of water rationing were over.
We won’t ever miss the water cuts, but I can’t help feeling we got lost somewhere along the road from the simple water-wise logic of fixing leaking taps and contour ploughing to where we are today: big dams on most rivers and energy-guzzling desalination, plus more and more irrigated agriculture, golf courses and swimming pools.
The biggest give-away when examining our approach to water perhaps lies in the naming of the relevant department. The Water Development department it is called, and not the Water Management department or, more wishfully, the Water Conservation department. There is a place for reservoirs and even desalination (solar-powered, please) in a balanced water-management policy. But you don’t have to be a techno-phobe or have a fear of concrete to see that our water management equation is out of kilter. Balancing needs to come in the form of good, old-fashioned, water-saving measures and, more fundamentally, in a shift away from the idea that our water resource can be ‘developed’. We get ‘x’ amount of rainfall a year and that, essentially, is what we should be aiming to use, while leaving a bit over for forests, scrub and riverine systems as an investment in the future health of natural systems.
Instead, we put up dams on almost every river. The result is staggering rates of coastal erosion and crashing fish stocks – the direct outcome of hardly any river-borne silt reaching the sea any more. We turn sea-water into fresh through power-hungry reverse osmosis, meanwhile releasing more CO2 into an already overheated atmosphere and brine waste back into the sea. The government has actually encouraged – even subsidised – farmers and home gardeners to open more and more bore-holes, over-drawing on precious ground water and sucking sea water into coastal aquifers.
And then there is farming. What we were not taught in those primary-school water-saving lessons was that even if every leaking tap were fixed, everyone had two-minute showers and the neighbour finally gave up that pavement-sprinkling habit, it would not make that much difference. (It is still worth doing all the above, because it’s worth doing, and for the principle of the thing, but it won’t fundamentally change the big water resource picture). Why? Because something like three-quarters of available water actually goes to agriculture. And here we have a problem. Not just because not all fields are actually contour-ploughed, nor because erosion-blocking bushes are still being ripped out to make life easier for farm machinery. Not even just because irrigation is too often horribly inefficient – sprinklers turned on in the midday heat, for example. It’s more a matter of farming policy and direction. The push in recent decades has been for ever more irrigated, high input agriculture, as if there was more water resource out there to be ‘developed’ to this end. Add golf course greens and swimming pools to the equation, and we are living in water never-never land.
Solutions do exist, but no amount of drip irrigation or hedgerow-planting can make up for the fundamental shift away from an acceptance of the ecological reality that water-hungry agriculture does not fit on a dry, dry island. (And it is worth adding here that most climate change models point to Cyprus continuing along the current path of reduced precipitation). There is room in Cyprus for a measure of (carefully) irrigated agriculture, but we should learn to accept that Cyprus is best as a land of ‘milk and honey’ (sustainable goat-and-sheep grazing and bee-keeping), with olives, carobs and dry cereals thrown in. But it will always be straining the ecological boundaries as a land of potatoes, avocados and silage-fed cows.
Plus – it bears repeating – we need to care for our water-sheds, preserving the ‘sponge’ of natural scrub and forest cover on hill and mountainsides. This green cover blunts erosion and generates slow-release of rainwater into streams. The wild spates of the Pedieos will always follow heavy rains, but would be tempered by preserving healthy natural systems upstream. Thanks to welcome technological and engineering advances, the desperate two-bucket days of my childhood are but a fading memory. But we still need to live – and farm – within the boundaries set by a realistic, sustainable approach to water resource management on an increasingly dry island.
Nicosia, December 2015
MARTIN HELLICAR is an ecologist with a special love for birds and a particular interest in farmland ecosystems. Martin is the longest-serving staff member at conservation NGO BirdLife Cyprus. Over the years, he has worked in media and lobbying for the organisation; today he is focused on research and monitoring. Of British descent, Martin grew up in Cyprus and has previously worked as a builder, a newspaper journalist and TV news presenter on the island. In his spare time, Martin is studying for a PhD at the University of Cyprus, looking at the interaction between grazing and birds in Cyprus.
Images: Silvio Augusto Rusmigo