Cyprus turns off taps to farmers as fresh water levels drop


Cyprus has learned to manage drought through experience. A similar crisis in 2008 forced the country to import water on tankers from Greece.

Yiannis Papazoglou, a mechanical engineer with the country’s water development department who was involved with bringing water in from abroad, said he hopes that scenario won’t be repeated.

The reservoir behind the Kouris dam ­— the largest in the country — is down to just 16.7 percent of its capacity. Papazoglou said that is better than a decade ago, when the volume of water dropped to well below 1 percent.

By restricting the use of water for agriculture, he said the department is ensuring there is enough water for this year and next if drought conditions persist.

The nearby city of Limassol is supported by a desalination plant that converts around 10.6 million gallons of water daily. The facility is operated privately and the water is then sold to the government and distributed.

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An abandoned church towers over the Kouris dam near Limassol, Cyprus.Petros Karadjias / for NBC News

A half-mile pipe sucks in water from the Mediterranean Sea, filtering out as much debris as possible, explains Giannis Gounarides, a mechanical engineer with operator MN Limassol Water Co. The water then works its way through a complex filtration system developed by Israel’s national water company, Mekorot, that includes reverse osmosis and the addition of minerals and chlorine for taste and safety.

The water costs about 85 cents per cubic meter (264 gallons) — much higher than the 10 to 12 cents it costs to treat and distribute the same amount of fresh water.

Suffering crops

The government turned off the taps to seasonal crops this month, meaning significant losses for farmers.

Permanent crops, like trees that are harder to replace when they die, are receiving roughly 25 percent of their water needs simply to keep plants alive.

The Riverland Dairy Bio Farm is in the center of the island, roughly 30 miles from the south coast. Vassilis Kyprianou raises goats and sheep and produces hay and seasonal crops in greenhouses there.

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A small dam near a farm in Kampia, Cyprus.Petros Karadjias / for NBC News

To support his own water needs, Kyprianou has three boreholes and captures rainwater in two massive tanks. Without regular rain, the tanks are getting low and crops are suffering.

Kyprianou said he produced 55 percent less hay compared with years when rain is adequate. It means he’ll have to import feed from overseas — at a 35 percent higher cost than growing it himself.

Pumping groundwater is also becoming more expensive as the diesel required for the job increases in price, he said. “I worry about this, but I’m always positive,” he said. “I believe nature can make the balance, but we need people to have a vision.”

Kyprianou wants to see the government prioritize the agriculture sector. He said less water should be allocated for tourism areas and conservation practices like what he’s implemented at his property could be scaled nationally. “We could collect water at each house,” he said.

‘The most hated person in Cyprus’

Pambos Hajipakkos, the country’s chief water officer, acknowledges there is plenty of criticism of the government’s efforts to mitigate the crisis. “There is no way I can keep everybody happy,” he said. “I was told by a friend of mine that these days I’m the most hated person in Cyprus.”

Deciding who gets water and how much is a delicate calculation that considers economic and social issues, Hajipakkos said.

Farmers argue they have international contracts they must deliver on and their own livelihoods to maintain, but tourism is a far bigger contributor to the country’s economy. Agriculture represented just 2 percent of the country’s GDP in 2016, while tourism’s direct and indirect contributions amounted to 21.4 percent.

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Ayia Napa is a popular destination for tourists.Patrick Baz / AFP/Getty Images file

There are also practical considerations when choosing what initiatives to implement. “Would shutting down all the swimming pools really make a difference?” Hajipakkos asked.

Negotiations are underway to expand the capacity of the Limassol desalination plant to produce an extra 5.3 million gallons of water daily. With that increase, Hajipakkos said the city could function without any rainfall.

The construction of a fifth plant on the island is also up for bid for the Paphos region. Long term, Hajipakkos said he wants major pipelines built to better connect the water system across the country in case one of the plants breaks down.

“Things happen,” he said. “Your air conditioner goes wrong midsummer. Desalination plants go out of operation because they need maintenance or something happens.”

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The desalination plant in Episkopi, Cyprus.Petros Karadjias / for NBC News

Plans have been developed to improve wastewater treatment and collection at the capital to create more water for irrigation, he said. Farmers are also being encouraged to shift toward more drought-resistant crops.

Hajippakos said he’d like to see heftier fees for homes that use high amounts of water to create incentives for conservation.

“You have to adjust with what you have,” he said.

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