Climate change brings drought to Mediterranean

Huge sand dunes dot the landscape and the fish and birds have disappeared as a crippling drought has made reservoirs, like the Kouros dam, resemble parched dirt bowls during the summer.

Water was once in abundance on the eastern Mediterranean island, which started promoting itself as a tourist haven - complete with resorts, golf courses and gardens - in the 1960s.

But analysts say the rise in temperature and fall in rainfall will likely turn the once relatively lush island into a Saudi Arabian-like desert by the end of this century as it feels the brunt of climate change.

The sun, once the island's key selling point as a tourism destination, could turn into a major problem if forecasts on changing weather patterns throughout the eastern Mediterranean prove to be correct.

Costas Papastavros, an agriculture and natural resources ministry official, says freshwater has always been a scarce commodity in the semi-arid Mediterranean. Now Cyprus is joining a group of countries where there will be an increased level of drought and desertification due to climate change.

"Statistics clearly show that over the last 100 years the average yearly rainfall on the island has decreased by about 90 millimetres," says Papastavros.

Experts estimate that the rise in summer temperatures on Cyprus will average between two and four degrees this century, when compared with average 1960s temperatures of 20.1 Centigrade. Temperatures already exceed 35 degrees Celsius at the height of summer.

"Certainly climate change predicts deterioration of the situation within the Mediterranean basin, and the future presents many challenges for Cyprus ... the road will not be easy," said Michalis Polynikis, minister of agriculture, natural resources and environment.

For the past few years, with reservoirs dangerously dry of water during the summer due to low rainfall, water to households has been rationed, with the main supply running only three half days a week. Additionally, there is a permanent ban on using garden hoses for outdoor activities like watering lawns and washing cars.

Officials from both the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities of the war-torn island have also had to import hundreds of million of gallons from neighbouring Greece and Turkey.

But despite the cuts, the tourism sector, the island's chief moneymaker, remains largely untouched. Many resentful Cypriots say the island's 14 golf courses should never have been built in the first place.

Kyriakos Kyrou, a senior engineer for the Water Development Department in Nicosia, says climate change is only exacerbating a problem that Cypriots helped create.

"For many years, the government's policy was to make drills and take out the water from the earth at an unsustainable pace, but development and the agricultural economy has helped deplete the island's groundwater," said Kyrou, adding that officials are just starting to take the problem seriously.

"The situation is very bad. We are at the mercy of the environment and we are under enormous pressure here because we need to produce the water. But, in reality, you have no say in how the water's being used."

To cope with the now yearly drought, the eastern Mediterranean island is one of the main producers of energy intensive desalinated water in Europe, along with Spain.

Currently, one mobile and two permanent desalination plants are in operation. Additional plants are under construction and will be in operation in the next couple of years.

"The aim is to eliminate dependency of potable water on rainfall and increase water security so that every person has access to safe water," said Polynikis.

Removing salt from sea water to overcome the worldwide shortage of drinking water could end up worsening the problem, environmental group WWF has warned.

Desalination, the filtering and evaporation of sea water, is very energy intensive and involves significant emission of greenhouse gases that scientists say are a factor in the shrinking supplies of freshwater, the Swiss-based group has said. Thus, they recommend arid countries focus more on water conservation and recycling projects to preserve water.

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