One tends to think of islands as wet places (surrounded as they are by water) but the island of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean sea belies that characterization. Among many childhood memories I have of that place, some of the most vivid are of the wide-open, piercing blue of cloudless skies and the sun-scorched, dusty brown earth of summers when we visited. Water from the tap was sometimes rationed, so families always had to make sure they stored enough water to drink, cook, wash and bathe. No one died of thirst, but everyone knew that water was precious.
That said, with an average annual rainfall of 480 millimeters (19 inches) the climate of Cyprus as a whole is technically only semi-arid – slightly wetter than Los Angeles or Denver, and much wetter than the true deserts that surround Las Vegas or Phoenix.
Nonetheless, the country seems always to be perched on the precipice of a water catastrophe, with periodic droughts that can last years. Over the last several years, conditions were some of the worst in memory, peaking in the winter of 2007/2008, a rainy season that saw no rain. Dams and springs dried up, and the country had to import tanker-loads — 8 million cubic meters–of water from Greece.
Over the last few years, saltwater intrusion into freshwater aquifers has become an increasing problem, particularly in coastal areas. Saltwater intrusion happens when freshwater aquifers are over-pumped, lowering the water table and effectively pulling in seawater in—contaminating the aquifer and making it useless for human consumption or irrigation.
Several years ago the country began a massive desalination program; the government now hopes to supply all its freshwater needs from desalination plants by 2011. But desalination is not without problems, not the least of which being that it consumes a tremendous amount of energy—a potentially serious problem for a nation that produces 95 percent of its electricity from oil-burning power plants.
Things got better last winter; it finally rained. But Cypriots know that it is only a matter of time before everything dries out again.
At a recent family reunion I finally had the chance to catch up with some relatives and I asked about the water situation back home. An aunt and uncle of mine who have an orchard in the mountains talked of the difficulty of keeping their fruit trees watered when the springs dry up.
I asked my uncle why he thought there were so many problems now; I pointed out that Cyprus had always had to deal with water issues. Yes, he said, but the villagers always managed, even if they had to conserve. How is it that for thousands of years the farmers were able to water their crops using low-tech methods, but now, even with the technology to drill 300-meter deep wells and build desalination plants, the country was always on the verge of water shortage?
To be fair, Cyprus has a long history of water challenges. The island presents an early, famous case of devastating deforestation from the Bronze age (1300-1000 BCE) when the copper-rich islanders burned almost all the trees to smelt metal. In a semi-arid, mountainous country this would likely have led to serious runoff, erosion and a drying out of the landscape.
From the that time, the primal connection of water to life has been embedded in Cypriot culture for centuries. For the Greek Orthodox Christians, water from natural springs at holy places had special significance; for many centuries believers made pilgrimages to monasteries to fill containers with water to use for special occasions throughout the year.
In dry years, villagers would make a procession with icons from the village church to the top of a local hill or mountain, where the priests would perform a special ritual to pray for rain.
The population of Cyprus has increased in recent years; but a more significant pressure is tourism. Cyprus is an island of some 800,000 people but receives some 1 to 2 million tourists a year—surely a trend that puts a strain on water resources.
In my uncle’s opinion, though, the most important factor affecting the recent water crisis is climate change. According to Cyprus government data, average annual precipitation between 1991/92 and 2007/08 was 9% lower than it was from 1961-1990, while the average temperature was half a degree centigrade higher than previously. That might not seem like much, but as anyone who studies climate knows, on an averaged basis, a half-degree difference is significant.
Residents feel it; almost every Cypriot I talk to believes that the country is hotter and drier than it used to be. Brutal heat-waves now strike on a regular basis; one of the worst was in the summer of 1998, but 2010 (on track to be the hottest year globally) was impressive as well, with temperatures soaring on some days to a stunning 46 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Fahrenheit).
My uncle, who used to work as an engineer in Saudi Arabia, compared recent trends to living there. “These are temperatures that we used to see in Riyadh,” he said, “not Cyprus.”
Of course Cyprus is just one of many canaries in the coalmine of global climate change. It is also a place where the intersection of local management of water resources with global trends highlights the importance of addressing and managing both. As always both the problems and solutions for water and other resources crises are at once local and global.