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Cyprus facing up to life after 'peak water'

By Natasha Maguder, CNN
  • Many believe that the Mediterranean island of Cyprus has exhausted fresh water supplies
  • Four year drought ended in 2008, but water demand still far exceeds supply
  • Both sides of the island have plans to cope with diminished fresh water
  • Turkish side is building a pipeline to Turkey; Greek Cypriot plan for desalination plants

(CNN) -- Cyprus is an island of one million people in the Mediterranean Sea and it's facing a water crisis.

It is the first country in the European Union to face what is being described as "peak water" where the demand for water is greater than that which the natural resources can supply.

Traditionally water on the island came from aquifers; water stored beneath the Earth's surface. But groundwater supplies have been depleted, and aquifers by the coast have started to take in seawater. This makes the freshwater salty, and means it can't be used for drinking water.

On a recent visit to the island, the Environment Commissioner of Cyprus, Charalampos Theopemptou, showed CNN some areas where 50 percent of trees have died because of a lack of water.

When you lose the trees, he says, you lose soil quality. This is why the authorities are worried that the island is slowly turning to desert.

Read Charalampos Theopemptou's opinion on how Cyprus can cope with water shortages

The Cyprus Institute forecasts that by 2050 the temperature for more than four months of the year will be above 35° Celsius (95° Fahrenheit) -- that's 50 percent more hot days per year.

As the temperature increases so does the demand for water on an island that attracts around 3 million tourist each year.

After four years of drought, which ended in 2008, Cypriots don't take their water for granted.

The director of the Water Development Department, Sofoclis Aletraris, told CNN that "water culture" is changing, and that daily deliveries of water from Greece in 2008 made people wiser.

The government spent $39 million importing tankers of fresh water from Greece, which was then rationed to households: their taps only worked for a few hours a day.

Farmers on the island suffered. We visited the Lazy Pig Farm in Aradippou, near Larnaca, where Vasilis Symeou and his family have over 8,000 pigs.

In 2008 there was no water for farmers. They had to buy water in small quantities -- not nearly enough to hydrate 8,000 pigs. This year 14 pregnant sows on the farm have died due to the heat. For Vasilis Symeou hotter weather and lack of water mean sick pigs and high medical bills.

However Cyprus is not helpless, says Theopemptou.

The government is investing heavily in desalination. Two plants are working, and two more are being built. By 2011 all drinking water in Greek Cypriot cities will come from seawater, treated in the desalination plants.

Sofoclis Aletraris says this is the only way to guarantee fresh drinking water for people on the island.

But it's not just people who need water. Theopemptou is afraid that without natural water sources, the land will suffer, and more trees will die.

A new waste water plant is being built in the capital Nicosia, and there are hopes that it will ease the problem by providing water for irrigation; water for the land, animals and environment.

In the Turkish north of the island, there is a different, more radical solution. In July the authorities signed an agreement with Turkey to build an underwater pipeline, stretching 250m below the sea, from the Alakröpü Dam in southern Turkey to the small village of Geçitköy in Cyprus.

The pipeline will be 80km long, and will deliver 75 million cubic meters of water every year.

Asim Kayan and the Waterworks Department in the north of the island are optimistic about the benefits of the pipeline. They say it will take four years to build, and will be invaluable for Turkish Cypriots.

The Cyprus Institute, based in the south of the island, calls the pipeline a "technical patch". Turkey may have water now, but what will happen, it says, as its own water reserves shrink.

At the moment there's no doubt that Cypriots on both sides of the island know just how valuable their water is. 2008 was a year of drought and flash floods, which many people won't forget anytime soon.