By Evie Andreou
Water levels in reservoirs are dangerously close to those experienced during the 2008 drought, and another dry winter will only increase Cyprus’ reliance on costly, environmentally unfriendly desalination plants, it emerged this week.
The worryingly low water levels have led to accusations that the state’s water policy is too short sighted in the light of long-term low rainfall.
Critics say not enough has been done to develop sustainable water policies such as water recycling plants or discouraging farmers from growing water-hungry crops and that far too much water is being lost due to an old, leaky pipe network.
The water department has also been accused of allowing farmers to use costly desalinated water for irrigating their crops when they are supposed to only use water supplied from the reservoirs. Officials have denied this but acknowledged the need to push ahead with building recycled water plants to be used for irrigation purposes.
Acting director of the Water Development Department (WDD) Nicos Neocleous said on Monday that the total amount of water held in reservoirs across Cyprus is 63 million cubic metres – a mere 21 per cent of total capacity – while last year reservoirs held twice this quantity.
“The situation is comparable with the 2008 drought, when the Cyprus government had arranged for water to be transported to Cyprus on tankers,” Neocleous said, referring to the decision by the Christofias government to import water from Greece at a cost of €35 million.
Back then, islandwide water cuts were in place along with official requests to limit water use by not hosing down pavements or flushing toilets unnecessarily.
Since 2008, four desalination plants have been built which can produce a total 220,000 cubic metres of water daily, covering the supply needs of Nicosia, Limassol, Larnaca and Famagusta.
The bleakest outlook is in the Paphos area, which has no desalination units, as it has 26 million cubic metres of water in its reservoirs, short of the annual requirement of 28 million for the region.
So far there has been no rain in October. Until the end of the year, according to the met office, temperatures are expected to be normal but dry, with predicted rainfall in some areas only half the normal seasonal levels.
“According to our statistics, within a ten-year cycle, there are three years of droughts,” Neocleous said.
“The problem occurs when these three years are consecutive like in 2008.”
The desalination plants mean that if the drought continues into 2017, any water cuts should be limited.
“We will have to enforce cuts on irrigation water but no problems are expected as regards drinking water, barring unforeseen circumstances,” Neocleous said.
But it is this reliance on desalinated water that concerns experts. In the face of climate change, a multi-level water policy is vital they say.
Efi Xanthou, vice president of Cyprus Green Party, described the consequences of the long-term use of desalination plants. The salinated water thrown back into the sea is warm, thus changing the sea environment, the fauna and causing a number of other problems, she said.
An engineer who wished to remain anonymous told the Sunday Mail that apart from high production costs, desalination plants, especially when they are all operating, emit carbon dioxide which undermines the government’s obligations to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions and risks the imposition of fines.
He said that desalinated water should be just part of a number of water sources and in Cyprus the measure has been abused.
“Desalination units are a good tool, but there must be wise evaluations before deciding how much water to produce. In Cyprus the government decided to increase production to the maximum without a serious study,” the expert said.
But Neocleous said that desalination plants produce water only when necessary, otherwise, they remain closed and the government pays them “stand-by rate”.
On average, he said, desalination water costs 75 cents per cubic metre, while dam water costs 45 cents. But as new technologies are being introduced, he said, production costs at desalination plants drop.
Last year the government paid €34m to desalination plants, and €50m in 2016. For next year the budget is €34m with an additional €25m approved in the case of water needs are increased due to the drought.
The agricultural sector is the major consumer of water and there have been very specific, detailed accusations that farmers are being supplied with expensive desalinated water to irrigate crops when this was never supposed to happen.
According to the expert engineer, the excess water produced by the Vassilikos desalination unit, for example, is being pumped to the Famagusta area where it is being used for irrigation purposes.
“The government is paying €1 per cubic metre to the plant, and is selling the water for 17 cents to farmers,” he told the Sunday Mail.
Neocleous denied that desalinated water was being wasted, nor is it used for irrigation purposes.
“At the moment, a €55m project is underway for the construction of a pipe to carry water from the Vassilikos desalination unit to Nicosia, as a plan B but to also satisfy water needs of the capital’s western communities that experience water problems.” The pipe is expected to be completed in three years.
Pressure is also being put on farmers to diversify their crops, even some of the more traditional but still water-greedy crops such as taro (kolocassi) and potatoes.
“Taro, for example, requires double quantities of water than most crops,” Neocleous said.
The agriculture ministry is running a number of programmes helping farmers to plant more drought-resistant crops, a ministry official told the Sunday Mail.
One scheme compensates farmers for loss of income – €400 per hectare – for five years if they agree to replace citrus trees with olive trees, carob-and prickly pear trees.
“We cannot forbid people to plant crops that require more water but there are measures to encourage the cultivation of those that do not require much water,” the agriculture ministry official said.
However, he said, there are water-needy crops that are very important for the economy such as potatoes which is a very important export product. “It is not all black and white,” he said.
There is however a scheme whereby potato farmers are compensated for loss of income for not planting anything in their plots once every three years.
Other measures, he said, include subsidies – between 40 per cent and 70 per cent – for the improvement of irrigation systems aiming to save water, as well as training farmers on how to save water.
“We advise them to use drip irrigation instead of sprinklers, to check their irrigation equipment for leaks, and on when and how often to water their crops,” he said.
At the heart of the accusations of a short-term water policy is that the government is failing to push ahead with a comprehensive water recycling plan and failing to fix its leaky water pipe network.
According to Xanthou, from the Green Party, a whopping 40 per cent of water is lost through leaking and broken pipes.
“We need to fix this first and stop paying huge amounts of money to private companies that run the desalination plants,” she said.
Xanthou argues that there should be a unitary authority in charge of the replacement and maintenance of the water pipe network. At present, the water boards of municipalities and local communities are in charge of their own networks and many of them, especially the small ones, do not have the capacity to change their pipes.
Neocleous disputes the figures. “Water loss in the pipe network of urban water board councils is between 12 and 20 per cent which is considered to be a very good percentage, an enviable one,” he said, though he conceded that water loss in smaller communities could be between 25 and 40 per cent.
Some real progress is being made in terms of water recycling. A wastewater recycling plant is under construction in Anthoupolis in the Nicosia district which will provide water for 26 farming communities.
Last year Agriculture Minister Nicos Kouyialis said that the €3m plant is projected to produce 42 million cubic metres in the first three years, with 25 million cubic metres utilised immediately. Production is to be increased to 65 million cubic metres in seven years’ time.
Xanthou said that infrastructure should be created to allow the use of recycled water for irrigation purposes in parks and roadsides and even to be available to private individuals to use in their gardens.
Consumers already pay for this through their water bills, she said.
The engineer welcomed the move towards recycling.
“Water that costs a few cents per cubic metre could replace desalinated water,” he said, but warned it would only be available for new cultivations as there was no infrastructure for the water to reach older plots.