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News Water shortage unites Cyprus in desperation

With water reserves at their lowest levels in decades, people on this Mediterranean island have seen the most stringent water rationing in years.

Reservoirs are just 5.5% full, two desalination plants cannot cope with demand from 800,000 people, and emergency water imports are coming from Greece.

Landscapes are growing more barren and are speckled with the crackled pits of empty dams. It's a stark reminder of the past: according to some historians, Cyprus was almost abandoned in 306AD because of a 17-year drought.

"Whatever happens, we will make sure people get water," says a weary water department official, who has the unenviable task of charting water levels falling by the hour, and who also has to deal with angry complaints if the water is delayed.

Twice a week at 8pm, my neighbourhood on the fringes of the capital Nicosia springs to life with the sound of water splashing into buckets. As soon as the water is turned on, people fill containers to back up the ubiquitous storage tanks perched on the roofs of all homes. Sometimes water comes on Saturday too, but it's normally late in the day.

The flow of water dictates our lives. Showers have become 30-second affairs under a trickle with a sponge and a bucket. I recycle all the dishwater to water my plants. I mop the house with one bucket of water.

Tuesday is laundry night. I stuff a 15lb washing machine to bursting point on 30-minute cycles. I remember a shocking statistic I heard on the radio: 77lb of water is needed to wash two pounds of clothes. On that basis, I splurge 540lb of water a throw.

When the rationing kicked in last April, friends went to each others' homes to shower.

Beyond the daily discomfort, there is a deep fear on this island, which is split along Greek and Turkish ethnic lines, that the water may dry up completely.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of having no water for days at a time during a particularly scorching summer in the 1980s when a lot of the neighbourhood cats died.

The shortages have forced the tourism industry to adapt.

When one of the country's two desalination plants went off-line for three days in June, hoteliers scrambled to bring in water in tankers, hoping the 2.5 million tourists who flock to Cyprus's sandy beaches would not notice.

"Right now we are managing, but it is a very difficult situation," said Haris Loizides, head of the hoteliers' association.

Tourism represents about 13% of Cyprus's gross domestic product. Hotels are subject to water cuts but they are less stringent than the ones imposed on households.

"We have not received any complaints," Loizides said.

Authorities blame the severity of the drought on climate change, which they say has cut rainfall by more than 10% over the past three decades.

As the soil becomes dryer and the seasons increasingly blurred, I find fewer wild mushrooms in the forests each winter. Warmer and drier winters mean foragers also have to be on the alert for snakes, which should be stuck in a hole hibernating.

Reservoirs where I once spent hours waiting for that one elusive trout to take the bait have now become muddy pools, and in some places the rotting carcasses of fish are glued to hard-baked mud.

Cyprus has one of the highest concentrations of reservoirs in the world, but the island's 17 main ones cannot cope.

"I've never experienced anything like this. We've drilled our mountains full of holes looking for water. This situation will have a long-term impact on our flora and fauna," said water department official Kyriakos Kyrrou.

Like everyone else though, I'm thinking short-term. I long to have a shower lasting more than a blink of the eye, give my car a good scrub and stop worrying that Tuesday seems a long time away.

Contact information Michele Kambas is a Reuters correspondent in Nicosia
News type Inbrief
File link
Source of information SCOTLANDonSunday
Keyword(s) water shortage, drought
Geographical coverage Cyprus
News date 22/08/2008
Working language(s) ENGLISH