By Peter Stevenson
SEVENTY-TWO-YEAR-OLD Yiannakis Fiouris vividly remembers the time before his home had running water and his family, like everyone else’s, had to collect their water daily from public taps and fountains.
He recalls the long queues that would form every morning in each neighbourhood in Nicosia outside the concrete block encased taps installed by the British.
“It was a nightmare, every morning 20 to 30 people would all be queued up outside these taps trying to fill up their buckets,” he said.
Sometimes scuffles would break out as people tried to cut in line.
“Back then people were illiterate and so cutting in would happen on a regular basis, but that didn’t mean others didn’t object and you would often see people shoving and pushing,” he added.
Fiouris said that every neighbourhood either had a large concrete tap, a well with a bucket or a well with a donkey which was attached to a system that would lift the bucket from the well.
“It was mainly the housewives who would struggle with the water as they would have to wake up from the crack of dawn to go get water to make sure there was plenty in the house. That isn’t to say they didn’t enjoy themselves, with the taps being a meeting point where they would gossip and talk about what was going on,” he added.
Needless to say every drop counted. Back then, the now ubiquitous sight of an elderly lady hosing down a drive way would not only have been shameful; it would have been downright impossible.
In the early 1950s that communal water collecting began to change with the creation of the Nicosia Water Board which is celebrating its 60th anniversary with a series of events this year.
Fiouris remembered how from the early fifties onwards, homes were steadily being equipped with running water.
“It was a huge relief to have running water in our homes and felt like such a luxury, of course people now take it for granted but back then it was a big deal.”
Sixty years after the creation of the Nicosia Water Board and those of other districts, Cyprus now has 108 dams that hold a capacity of 332 million cubic metres and five desalination plants which can produce 220,000 cubic metres per day if required, meeting the daily needs of the public.
The first reservoir was created in 1900 in Kouklia in the Famagusta district while the newest – the Soleas reservoir in the Nicosia district – opened only this year. The largest reservoir which can hold up to 115 million cubic metres, almost half the island’s full capacity, is in Kouris in Limassol.
The head of Nicosia’s water board, Nikos Zambakides, explained how greater accessibility to water has transformed the island.
He said that for thousands of years the people of Cyprus had to deal with the lack of water, leading them to create primitive ways to collect and save water.
“My mind goes back to wells, basins, windmills and everything else that was used to find and save water so life could exist,” he said.
Cyprus has a rich agricultural history and that would not have been possible if the islanders had not used all of their means to use whatever water was made available.
Before the water board existed, farmers inevitably had to drill for water.
“It was a way of life, people had no other choice if they wanted to water their plants,” 65-year-old Vasso Mishaouli from Nicosia recalled. Her father owned a plot of land with citrus and olive trees in Acropolis that he farmed with his brother, drilling for water and saving that water in a small concrete reservoir.
“Nothing was electronic, it was all with ropes and buckets but they just got on with it because that’s just the way it was,” she said.
Zambakides explained how before the creation of the water board, private companies were the first to supply water to homes to augment what was collected daily from the public taps. The water was carried in tanks, and driven by a cart donkey.
“In 1951 the bill was passed which saw the creation of the first water board in Nicosia two years later in 1953,” he said.
Operations expanded after 1953 with water boards opening in the other main districts on the island.
“It was primarily created to be a water development department for Nicosia but then the different municipalities and areas got involved and a cooperation was formed so they could also be supplied with water,” he said.
Zambakides said it has definitely not been an easy 60 years. Despite a rapid and extensive programme of reservoir building from the 1970s onwards, Cyprus has been hit periodically by droughts, particularly in the 1990s and again in 2008-9. During that last drought, water had to be imported from Greece as a very pricey emergency measure. But with five desalination plants now operational, water board officials have said a repeat of the last drought is impossible.
Tough challenges remain however for the water board as it celebrates its 60th birthday. Top of the list is to stop water waste through leakage.
“Our main priority now is to reduce the amount of unaccounted water which we lose through leaks,” said Zambakides. “Another is to better inform people how to use the water at their disposal hopefully getting the message across that they shouldn’t be watering their pavements as water is our most valuable resource.”
History of Water Museum
Keen to stay in touch with its roots, Nicosia’s Water Board will be officially opening their open-air water museum on September 18. The Cyprus Mail was lucky enough to be given a tour of the museum prior to its official opening with head of the Nicosia Water Board Nikos Zambakides explaining that talks are ongoing with the education ministry to arrange guided tours for school children in the upcoming academic year.
The museum provides a history of how people would get their supply of water from buckets and wells to old concrete taps and finally to running water in homes.
The museum is situated next to the Nicosia Water Board’s main building on Athalassa Avenue and Zambakides encouraged the public to pay it a visit the next time they go in to pay their water bill.
Facts about Nicosia water supply
The Nicosia Water Board supplies water to a total of eight municipalities. They include Nicosia, Strovolos, Engomi, Ayios Dometios, Aglandja, Latsia, Geri and Tseri as well as the communities of Ergates and Anthoupolis.
A total of 162 people work for the water board helping to supply water to around 330,000 consumers.
The Nicosia Water Board (NWB) maintains and develops infrastructure and handles water management. Its pipe network spans 1,400 kilometres and its eleven reservoirs can accommodate 76,000 cubic metres.
Over the last few years, the NWB has been handling over 23 million cubic metres.
From those 23 million cubic metres, consumers paid for 18 million cubic metres last year. The rest, over five million cubic metres was lost through leaks although some was used up by fire services or in the process of cleaning up pipes.
The loss is the surprising consequence of the island becoming less dependent on rain. From 2010, the NWB has been able to provide water to consumers on a continuous basis. A number of desalination plants – touted as a way to make the island independent of rainwater and avoid droughts despite financial and environmental costs – are now capable of providing much of the island’s water needs. Two plants in Dhekelia and Larnaca were upgraded in 2009 to be able to accommodate more of the needs of Nicosia, Larnaca, and Famagusta.
But the transition from interrupted to continuous water supply in 2010 also flagged leakage problems, the NWB said in its 2010-2011 report. As a result, water loss figures roughly doubled from 3.3 million cubic metres in 2009 to 6.2 million cubic metres in 2010.
By 2011, the NWB was able to contain losses (which do include legitimate water uses by public bodies) to 5.4 million cubic metres.
In 2011, NWB technicians were called to repair 11,506 faults in the system. Technicians also isolated over a thousand hidden leaks. Water loss “is the most serious matter plaguing water boards across the world, particularly in countries with limited water sources,” the NWB said. In addition to repairing damages to the network, the NWB is in the process of replacing old metres to increase their accuracy rate.
Water bills in 2012 were hiked by 15 per cent. Prices are due to rise further to meet production costs, as part of Cyprus’ EU obligations.
In a public poll in 2011, the NWB asked visitors to its website to fill in a questionnaire on water management. Asked how the country’s water problems could be resolved, 25.7 per cent called for more desalination plants, 10.3 per cent for more water plants while 18.6 per cent said that public awareness on water usage could help authorities better handle the scarce resource.