Water policy for a semi-arid island

Costas Apostolides

Regular rainfall is no longer as reliable as it once was in Cyprus, but new measures to desalinate seawater and recycle wastewater for agricultural use have had good results, writes Costas Apostolides, writes Costas Apostolides

With its low annual rainfall and occasionally severe droughts, Cyprus faces a constant battle to provide sufficient water for its growing population. However, the introduction of policies for more efficient utilisation of water, recycling wastewater and the desalination of seawater seems to be paying off.

The preservation of natural supplies of surface and ground water is a major environmental and health goal for the authorities but, at the same time, the island’s semi-arid environment is inevitably threatened by the requirement to meet the legitimate needs of the population, industry and tourism. In these circumstances, water policy in Cyprus requires a fine balance of measures that can improve supply, reduce consumption and encourage efficient water use and recycling.

Over the last 40 years the climate of the island has changed. There was a step change in precipitation after 1970, when rainfall decreased by 20 percent. Years of good rainfall became less frequent, drought years increased, and natural water availability declined.

Amid a prolonged five-year drought that occurred after Cyprus joined the European Union (EU) in 2004, the government developed a strategy of adjusting water and environment policies to EU law, while expanding water supply to households, businesses, tourists and farmers, and applying safeguards for the preservation of natural supplies, wetlands and the natural environment.

In summary, the key elements of policy have been designed to promote the efficient use of water; introduce water pricing to encourage more productive use in both urban and rural areas; provide protection for wetlands; develop desalination and recycling capabilities; and increase the use of boreholes and rainwater storage. As a result of the successful application of these measures, savings of about 8 percent in water use have been obtained, supply has increased and water shortages have been overcome.

The annual water balance at the start of the new millennium was estimated as being: total rainfall 2,670 million cubic metres (MCM); evaporation 86 percent (2,300 MCM); usable water 370 MCM (surface water 235 MCM, groundwater 135 MCM); storage capacity of 332 MCM in 108 dams; annual water supplied 127 MCM; aquifer recharge 45 MCM; and losses to sea 48 MCM (20 percent of surface water). Improvements in this balance have occurred thanks to the production of an additional 49 MCM from desalination, with a planned doubling of this output by August 2011. There is also a supply of treated sewerage effluent of 12 MCM for irrigation and almost 3 MCM for replenishment of aquifers.

Environmental problems in urban and rural areas have improved as a result of the establishment of new sewerage systems, for each of which environmental impact assessments were undertaken at the planning stage. There has, however, been inevitable public resistance to the building of new sewerage treatment plants and to the disposal of treated effluent in the sea.

On the whole, households have benefitted from adequate water supplies and farmers have been able to access additional water for irrigation and, so far, no major environmental problems have become apparent.

About the author:

Costas Apostolides is an economic consultant


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