Project of the Century – Conservation watered down

The project to supply a severely water-deficient North Cyprus with water moves on apace. The supply dam at Anamur in Mersin district is over 75% complete, meanwhile Gecitkoy dam (above) that will contain the water transported by pipes under the sea from Anamur is nearing completion and outbuildings to service the dam are under construction.North Cyprus News - Turkish water pipeline

The project which began in 2010 is impressive, water will be transported to the TRNC by pipe; the underwater sections of the pipeline will be approximately 80 kilometres long and will cross a channel as deep as 1,430 meters, or 4,700 feet, but the pipeline will be suspended 250 meters below the surface.

Each 500-meter section of pipe will be tethered to the sea floor far below, bringing 75 million cubic meters, or 19.8 billion gallons of water per annum to North Cyprus for domestic and agricultural use. The project is hailed as a life saver which will boost the economy and solve the water shortage problem.

However, the alternatives – water conservation and desalination appear to have been dismissed in favour of this much more expensive and perhaps showy project.

There is one desalination plant run in Bafra by an Israeli firm for the benefit of 38 local villages and the tourist industry. More of these plants could be built.

The environmental argument is that teaching people about water conservation, recycling and de-salination is a better option. South Cyprus is turning instead to recycling and desalination.

“We’re determined to use desalination and recycled water to augment our supply of water,” Kyriacos Kyrou, Director for the South’s Water Development Department, said.

“The country has five desalination plants that together can process 250,000 cubic meters of water a day.  Still, the country aims to reduce dependency upon fossil fuel-intensive desalination by ramping up water recycling,” he said.

Dams cause environmental damage

There are also potential environmental hazards caused by building dams. Environmental experts question the sustainability of transferring water out of its natural basin, and outside engineers are watching to see how the project works out in practice.Cyprus News - Alakopru Dam

Transfers of water from one basin to another and other engineering projects are a quick-fix solution to meet growing demand in drier regions. Proposals for such projects are on the rise, but environmentalists say there are alternatives, including the ability to increase conservation and recycling before turning to these long-distance transfers. Water use worldwide in the 20th century grew at more than twice the rate of the global population, according to a U.N. report in 2011.

Denis Landenbergue, freshwater program manager for World Wildlife Fund International in Gland, Switzerland, has said that the group urged caution about these projects, which have actually seen a rise in water demands. He cited the Tagus-Segura pipeline in Spain which is 178 miles long and was opened in 1978.

The water it delivered to the Segura region led to an expansion of irrigated land and urban development on the coast, according to a WWF report on water transfers. The pipeline “multiplied the initial ‘water deficit’ that it was supposed to solve,” the report said.

Water transfers also risk conveying invasive species from the donor basin to the destination. “It’s often underestimated, and there are lots of cases where invasive species are causing huge trouble for the ecosystem, biodiversity and the economy,” Mr Landenbergue said.

Across the whole of Cyprus, climate change and population growth are increasing water demand. Rainfall has decreased by over 25% over the past 96 years, says Professor Huseyin Gokcekus, Vice Rector at Near East University in Nicosia and general coordinator for water in North Cyprus’ Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The mismanagement of water has made the problem worse, he said, residents have pumped out more groundwater over the decades than nature could replace. That has allowed salt water to enter aquifers along the island’s coast.

“Ninety-two percent of the country’s water is obtained from groundwater,” he continued, adding that North Cyprus lacks both public education on conservation and infrastructure for water recycling.

Environmentalists fear that the fresh water bounty from the new pipeline could create a perverse incentive to increase farming, as occurred in Spain. However, half of the water transferred from Turkey “will be used in agriculture,” Professor Gokcekus says but there will be no increase in farming acreage in the first phase of the project, he said. Instead, the transferred water will replace the salty groundwater now used by farmers for irrigation.

To help ensure the best use of the new water supply, he is working with the TRNC Parliament on a law to address water-wise crop choices, irrigation, systems that conserve water, public education, rainwater harvesting and infrastructure to recycle domestic water.

Mr Landenbergue of the WWF said, however, points out that such measures should have been completed before proceeding with a water transfer project, although he could not speak specifically about the North Cyprus pipeline because he had not studied it.

But even if North Cyprus can avoid the classic pitfalls of water transfer projects, Mersin Province in Turkey could fall prey to donor-basin problems. Reduced water flows have environmental, social and economic impacts, according to the WWF. Altering natural flow systems can lower water tables, increase salt water intrusion to coastal areas, and harm fish migration and spawning, it said. But Mr Taskin of Turkey’s water agency says that his country would be transferring just one-tenth of the annual flow capacity of the river, “Turkey will not encounter any water shortage due to this project,” he said.

With the project nearing completion, water transfer is predicted to begin in March 2014, only time will show the benefits and drawbacks.

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