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Cyprus turns off taps to farmers as fresh water levels drop

Countries in the eastern Mediterranean are increasingly vulnerable to drought as the changing climate brings higher temperatures and less precipitation.
by Linda Givetash /  / Updated 
Image: Cyprus drought
Charis Christoforou in his parched fields in Maroni, Cyprus.Petros Karadjias / for NBC News

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MARONI, Cyprus — The salty water of the Mediterranean in plain view from Charis Christoforou’s olive farm is no help to the cracked, white earth suffering from a third year of drought.

A shortage of rain combined with clouds of dust carried over from the water-starved Middle East has slashed Christoforou’s olive production to a quarter of what it was less than two decades ago. Even cactuses are struggling to survive.

But there are few easy fixes as this island nation of almost 1.2 million people faces the looming reality of life without fresh water.

Cyprus and other countries in the eastern Mediterranean are increasingly vulnerable to drought as the changing climate brings higher temperatures and less precipitation, according to Petteri Taalas, the general secretary of the World Meteorological Organization.

Reservoirs behind dams are at just 21.9 percent of capacity across Cyprus.

Image: Cyprus drought
The reservoir behind the Kouris dam ­— the largest in the country — is down to just 16.7 percent of its capacity.Petros Karadjias / for NBC News

The government here imposed restrictions on using water for irrigation this month. The move was unpopular with farmers, but officials say it is the only way to prevent the reservoirs from running dry before the end of the year.

Taps continue to flow in urban areas because of a supply of more costly potable water that has been transformed from seawater by four desalination facilities.

“This is not enough,” said Theodoulos Mesimeris, a climate-change expert with the country's environment ministry.

Image: Map showing Cyprus

The semi-arid country is accustomed to periods of drought, but Mesimeris said the frequency of these dry conditions is expected to increase over the next decade. At the same time, demand for water has increased because of a growing urban population and booming tourism sector.

“The needs we have today, they are very different from the past,” he said. “It’s a difficult issue to handle.”

'I don't think they have a future'

Dead grass crunches beneath Christoforou’s feet as he walks through the farm he inherited from his father in 2015. Despite the challenges of a changing climate, he said he remains optimistic that the business will be sustainable.

The 34-year-old mechanical engineer said he’s trying everything to reduce his costs and keep up production.

He has access to public water, but it costs twice as much as pumping from his own boreholes. That's become an expensive necessity now that his wells have started drawing salt water as the Mediterranean leaches into the barren aquifers below.

To deal with the lack of rain, Christoforou said he’s stopped tilling the soil to lock in moisture, makes mulch out of the dead grass and twigs to diminish the sun’s rays, and uses natural traps to keep insects away.

In addition to dry conditions, extreme weather is also taking a toll. Christoforou’s attempts to grow grapes were dashed by rare hailstorms that hit the island in the first few days of June. The Ministry of Agriculture said that resulted in nearly 100 percent losses for some crops.

Image: Cyprus drought
Charis ChristoforouPetros Karadjias / for NBC News

Christoforou sees tourism as a potential revenue stream to support his struggling organic farm. He plans to build villas on the property where tourists can stay to taste his organic olive oil, honey and herbs and learn about sustainable farming practices.

But he’s less certain about the island's agriculture industry as a whole. Christoforou said he’s the only organic farmer in the area. Neighboring farms continue tilling their soil, increasing the risk for erosion when rains come in sudden sweeps.

“I don’t think they have a future,” he said. “If they don’t change their ways to be more eco-friendly, they will have problems.”

Desalination

Adriana Bruggeman, a professor of hydrology and water management at the Cyprus Institute, a research organization, said no matter what civilians do to conserve water, there is simply not enough of the natural resource to fill the need.

But most of the 3.65 million sun-seekers who visited the island last year — including 1.25 million from the United Kingdom — were most likely oblivious to the crisis.

“It’s nothing like Cape Town,” she said, referring to the South African city’s crisis this year, which forced residents to forgo regular showers and flushing toilets. “In the cities, for tourism, nobody will notice.”

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.

Image: Cyprus drought
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.

Image: Cyprus drought
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.

Image: Ayia Napa
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."

Image: Cyprus drought
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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