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Drought-Stricken Cyprus Seeks Water

September 27, 1998

LEFKARA, Cyprus (AP) _ The sign on a hill overlooking the nearly empty reservoir behind Lefkara Dam warns: ``Swimming is prohibited.″

That may be all that is funny about the severe water shortage gripping this island at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

Drought has parched Cyprus for three years, leaving vital government reservoirs at just 6 percent of capacity and authorities faced with the prospect of water running out by year’s end without substantial rains.

The shortage was exacerbated by record temperatures in July and August. At one point, the mercury hit 110 degrees, pushing water consumption even higher.

Some farms are already deserted for a lack of water. Rain-fed reservoirs, like the one behind the Lefkara Dam near the southern port of Limassol, have been reduced to muddy puddles.

A sense of emergency pervades the island, long a major resort destination for European travelers, and authorities are scrambling for quick-fixes.

Some of the ideas touted: importing fresh water from faraway Canada, building more costly desalination plants, introducing even more stringent water rationing.

More likely the shortfall will be made up by greatly expanding the use of underground water, a prospect that environmentalists warn could prove an ecological disaster.

``Underground water has already been overtaxed,″ said Nicos Georgiades, director of the Agriculture Ministry’s environment services.

Excessive use of the aquifers would lead to sea water seeping in and mixing with scarce fresh water, he warned.

Cyprus has no more than half of the groundwater that it had in 1960, said Michael Peppis, a government hydrologist.

The shortage has already made for changing lifestyles.

Homes in Nicosia, the capital of 250,000 people, get water for just 30 hours a week, the tightest ration ever.

Hotels in the seaside resorts are so short of water that they now buy it from private companies to meet the needs of some of the more than 2 million tourists who visit Cyprus every year. In Larnaca, several hotels are paying nearly $6,000 a month for extra water.

Irrigation water delivered to farmers has been cut 75 percent more this year. Such cutbacks are blamed in part for the drop in Cyprus’ farm exports, such as citrus fruit and potatoes. Farm exports earned $76 million last year, down nearly a third from 1996.

At present, wells tapping the island’s aquifers supply at least 80 percent of Cyprus’ water. The rest comes from reservoirs and a desalination plant. The plant, which began operations last year, produces 8.7 million gallons of fresh water a day, about half the needs of the Nicosia, Larnaca and Famagusta districts.

Another plant with the same capacity is under construction and should begin operating by 2000. And the government announced contracts in September for two more desalination plants that are to begin operating in 1999, each with production of 3.3 million gallons daily.

Another proposal is to ship fresh water by sea from Canada, although many Cypriots say that would be too expensive.

``If we don’t get any rain this winter, we shall take all necessary measures to see us through,″ said Andreas Panayiotou of the State Water Development Department.

Parliament recently voted to impose a $60 fine for anyone caught wasting water. And the government is considering mandating water-saving devices for homes, taking over private wells and increasing water prices to encourage conservation.

Agriculture Minister Costas Themistocleous recently offered a public apology for the water crisis. He said it was inappropriate for an island as wealthy as Cyprus to be faced with a shortage of a basic item that affects the economy and the quality of life.

Yet, in September, the government announced it was issuing permits for construction of four water-hungry golf courses as part of its campaign to increase tourism to 3 million visitors a year by 2003.

``It is crazy,″ said Evi Theopemptou, an environmental activist. ``There is no logic behind it.″