Below is a brief overview of Cyprus water-related information as a background to the Cyprus water project
‘A Mediterranean Story: An Island of Water Preppers’.
The project was first presented in the exhibition “The Chronicles of a Water Prepper” in the cities of Seoul and Gyeongju, South Korea in 2016-17.
Cyprus, and the consequences of past deforestation
As the third largest island in the Mediterranean, Cyprus has an area of 9,250 km2. In the ancient world, Cyprus was known as the “green island” of the region, as it was once covered with forests from its Troodos mountain range all the way down to its coastline; when there was adequate rainfall, the island had abundant supplies both of surface and spring water. Over the centuries, however, these lush and diverse forests were reduced primarily by the use of wood for the processing of the rich copper resources of the island. This deforestation diminished tree cover and left large areas of exposed barren soil which had an ever-lasting impact on the island’s climate and precipitation patterns; in more recent times, fires, unmanaged grazing, degenerative cultivation and agricultural practices have contributed to this trend. The 1881 survey of the island by Earl H.H. Kitchener found that the island had wooded-areas of up to 200,000 hectares, not including its forest areas. Today, only some 18% of the total land of the country is covered by forests, and current monoculture pine tree reforestation methods have not helped ease the increasing the threat of desertification and other effects of climate change on the island.
As a small island without large rivers or rivers of perennial flow, and no trans-boundary water supply, Cyprus has always had to rely solely on its own limited sources of water. Despite its forested mountains, Cyprus did suffer from droughts and water shortages, and nearly reached desert conditions in its pre-civilization periods. As it has suffered from water insecurity for centuries, it can be said that Cyprus has an innate and intrinsic water-prepping tradition. In fact, from the various water works found in archaeological excavations of ancient settlements, it appears that the climatological conditions of Cyprus have not substantially changed from the ancient times to this day. As far back the Stone Age, the settlements in Cyprus were built in places where there was available surface or underground water. During the Classic, Hellenistic and Roman eras, the development of water resources and the proper water use began to take place on a more detailed and organized basis, with the construction of complicated water supply and irrigation works. Therefore, throughout history, the island’s inhabitants have been obliged to face the problem of drought, and have had to find viable ways for its collection, storage and conveyance—to satisfy both the potable water supplies and the needs of irrigation for food production.
Around the world, since the Industrial Revolution, scientific and technological advancements brought about an intense exploitation of the planet’s natural resources. Cyprus, however, remained almost unaffected by this trend until the early 20th century. But with the very rapid expansion of towns, industrialization, the revival of copper mining activity, intensive cultivation and increased use of surface and groundwater, a tremendous strain was placed on the environment and the island’s natural resources. Until the island’s independence in 1960, thousands of boreholes were drilled in all parts of the country, which resulted in serious depletion due to over-pumping of its groundwater reserves, especially in the main water-bearing areas of the island. Following WW2 and British pressure for greater production, local resources were overused for urbanization, a commercial economy, and for aggressive industrial farming, leading to the island passing “peak” point with all of its natural resources.
Independence and governmental water policy
With the establishment of the Republic of Cyprus, there was an inevitable increase in demand for water in residential, industrial and agricultural sectors, stemming largely from economic growth. At the time, the challenge of water scarcity and its management was taken over by the official water policy of the new government, which was accompanied by the slogan “Not a drop of water to the sea”. During recent decades, increases in population, rise of living standards, development of irrigated agriculture, and new activities - especially tourism - drastically changed the water uses and requirements on the island. Although this need occurs across many dimensions, like other parts of the world, agriculture is by far the largest consumer of freshwater.
In the 1970s, the underground aquifers of the island, exhausted and damaged from decades of over-extraction of water, led to the government’s development of a major dam building project in the steep valleys of the Troodos mountains, in order to capture winter surface water from rainfall. Today, Cyprus now has the largest number of dams per square kilometer, and the largest storage volume per capita—with over 100 dams and total capacity of roughly 330 million cubic meters—of any European country.
Until 1997 the main source of water in Cyprus was rainfall. According to national studies the mean annual precipitation was estimated at 503 mm, but since 2000 it has reduced to below 463 mm. The quantity of water falling over the total surface area of the Republic of Cyprus is estimated at 2.750 million cubic meters (mcm), but only 10% or 275 mcm is available for exploitation, as the Water Development Department (WDD) of Cyprus has estimated that approximately 90% of the annual precipitation is lost to evapo-transpiration.
In view of the increasing water demand from rapid development in all sectors, Cyprus began to invest national resources in the implementation of ‘non-conventional’ sources of supply and new water-producing technologies, such as desalination and wastewater reuse. To eliminate the dependency of towns on annual rainfall, the government decided to proceed with the construction of seawater desalination plants, first introduced in April of 1997.
Despite these measures, along with the island of Malta, Cyprus is still considered the most “water poor” countries of Europe, because of overused groundwater supplies, erratic and unevenly distributed rainfall and with only small natural catchments for surface water. In 2008, Cyprus was the first country in the European Union to face “peak water”—where the demand for water is greater than that which the natural resources can supply. Four years of consecutive drought saw reservoir reserves dry out, desalination plants unable to cope with demands, and large portions of the island nearing desert conditions; some areas saw 50% of trees dry out. As a result of this situation, the population was subjected to weekly water cuts, emergency drilling for groundwater, and water even had to be transported by ship from abroad. Each day from July to November 2008, a tanker loaded with Greek water arrived carrying 40-50 thousand cubic meters of water. The total cost of transport, discharge and distribution was estimated at over 40 million euros.
It was following these severe consecutive droughts of 2004-08 that the government of Cyprus placed even more emphasis on desalination projects, and by 2011 nearly all drinking water in Greek Cypriot cities was being sourced from seawater from these desalination plants, and a new wastewater plant in the capital Nicosia. In 2014, Cyprus acquired its sixth desalination plant, at a cost of €46 million, which can produce up to 60,000 cubic meters of water a day.
Although the issue of water cuts to the public was eliminated with the implementation of these non-conventional water supply methods, and there are now adequate quantities of water for urban areas, irrigation, livestock, many believe that the building of desalination plants only serves as a temporary panacea. Cyprus has still has not resolved or foreseen many long-term problems in natural water resources and water management, and the island’s main natural disturbance has always been, and always be, drought.
— it does not have measures, information and grants to promote the establishment and/or implementation of water saving measures
— the raising of awareness of water conservation of the island’s natural water resources are insufficient to cover the increasing water needs, were the new technologies to fail
— new water supply methods have been found, but water reduction and adaptation measures for the future with more sustainable solutions are needed
— the desalination process also has an environmental impact, mainly because of the emission of greenhouse gases, and has a high production cost, and which is not recovered in the periods that oil prices are unstable
— fossil fuels such as fuel oil and coal are still the main sources of fuel for power plants that supply electricity to operate the desalination plants
— the environmental impacts of desalination plants in regards to increasing the salinity of the Mediterranean in Cyprus and its neighbors across the sea, such as Israel, are still not fully-evaluated (and impact on marine life)
— desalination provides water supply water only – it does not take into account the island's wildlife and biodiversity which is dying slowly because decreased precipitation and human impact on rivers and natural water bodies
— desalination plants will not save the land and soil in times of extreme drought
As is characteristic of the semi-arid countries of the region, one of the future dilemmas facing Cyprus today is that of better managing and storing its surface and ground water supplies in the face of both a steadily increasing water demand, inevitable and frequent occurrence of drought, and the future impacts of climate change of the region. Hence, despite the fact that Cyprus has seemingly resolved its daily water demand needs through non-conventional water-supply methods, the reality of the coming years is different: the increasing danger of the ‘dryland’ landscape of Cyprus progressing towards desertification.
Cyprus and the region
The Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East area, according to a 2016 NASA study, has been in a regional drought that began in 1998. It is considered to be the worst drought of the past 900 years. Moreover, it is unanimously estimated by climate scientists, through climate models, that this is one of the geographical areas of the world that is going to remain waterless in the future due to man-made climate change; the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the region will see more than a 50% drop in accessible fresh water by 2050. If fresh water supplies continue to fall, experts say parts of the region could become uninhabitable within a few decades. Cyprus itself has already lost 17% of rainfall in the last 20 years, and it is projected that in one generation (25 yrs), the landscape of the island will become more similar to that of Syria and Jordan; 75% of Jordan, for example, can be described as having a desert climate, with less than 200 mm of rain annually. Scientist and water expert at The Cyprus Institute, Prof. Dr. Manfred A. Lange summarized the situation in Cyprus:
“Desertification I would say is the biggest problem we are going to face in the next few decades. What we can do is start taking steps now to ameliorate the problem, and to make sure that we adapt to it. We must consider that the water we have for consumption must also be used for the environment”.
As in most places across the world, the continued effect of human behavior—which often acts as if it existed independent of nature—has also disrupted the natural life-cycles and biodiversity across the island. Damaged ecosystems affect the quantity and quality of water available for human consumption and the natural environment, and also worsen the effects of extreme weather events such as flooding and drought.
To achieve a resilient future for Cyprus, a more integrated view of water management and water use is a prerequisite. Water is needed for sustainable development, for the improvement of quality of life, but also for the protection and conservation of the island’s environment. Today’s water solutions need a change of mindset, and a merging of official governmental policies and other more sustainable long-term methods i.e — ‘nature-based’ rather than man-made solutions. Many of these types of methods are already being carried out by innovative individuals ‘on the ground’ who understand that issues such as soil degradation, tree cover and vegetation loss, and projected drought conditions—the greatest single threat from climate change—are factors that need to be addressed simultaneously.
As a first step, water, land use, and soil quality must become more widely understood as inter-related issues. Measures need to be taken in diverse sectors to optimize our water collection and its storage with these ‘nature-based’ and regenerative solutions on a broader scale beyond the efforts of individuals. For example, by reviving our soil’s organic matter (currently Cyprus has on average below 1% organic matter in its soil) we increase its water-retaining and rainfall infiltration capacity, important for flood mitigation, and reducing erosion and loss of topsoil. In addition, measures must be taken to reforest the island in a polyculture manner—as it once was in antiquity—rather than the accustomed pine forestation, for healthy forests are natural rainwater harvesters and vital to collecting water supply; for example, by creating micro-climates we can naturally increase rainfall, as vegetation is helps to recycle and distribute water. Tree cover also helps in reducing a warming climate, preventing catastrophic fires, and promotes abundance of plant and animal life for healthy ecosystems. Soil with high organic matter, and healthy trees and plants can also absorb carbon from the atmosphere in the form of CO2, and help mitigate against a warming climate and other effects of climate change.
In the semi-arid and arid countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa, the effects of current cultivation methods and the conversion of natural ecosystems to agricultural use have caused the multiple effects of soil erosion, degenerated landscapes and other factors leading to increased desertification across the region; for Cyprus this also means reduced air quality from desert sands which are now coming to the island far more often than in the past. All of these issues must be addressed together, as the predicted climate-driven changes of warmer temperatures and reduced precipitation will exacerbate more than water availability as it gets drier and hotter over time.
Regional cooperation on water, energy and food (the WEF nexus)
On a regional level, we must also begin to look at our collective limited water resources in the larger systems of this area, and in collaboration with regional partners, start addressing the overlapping connections between climate change, agricultural production, and current land and biodiversity degradation in the natural environment. In the face of inevitable development and increasing pressures from population and economic growth, the major challenges are not only the decreasing availability of fresh water—but threats to energy generation, land productivity, food security, and to environmental integrity.
Cross-sectoral innovative practices in water, food and energy that are ecologically forward-thinking will be the path to helping the region transform current methods and habits towards regenerative agriculture, a low-carbon and resource-efficient economy, and climactic not man-made water security, while at the same time combatting climate change. Nature-based methods of water and land management, growing more nutritious food, and modes of energy generation that will break our dependency on fossil fuel, must be the long-term solution to the challenges the region will continue to face through the 21st century.
N.B. The geographical area discussed relates only to the Republic of Cyprus, which excludes the occupied northern part of the island for which records availability stopped in 1974, with the Turkish invasion. Information for this summary was compiled from multiple sources, including online articles, and material provided by the Water Development Department and Ministry of Agriculture, Rural Development and Environment and CyI etc. Before and After photos: Water Development Dept of the Ministry; Photo of Kouris Dam: Andreas Manolis; Drilling photo and trees in drought: Xenis Gregoriou, Ministry photographer; Pedieos river: M. Nicolaides