Official report slams government water policy

By Martin Hellicar

THE GEOLOGICAL Survey department has put the cat among the pigeons by challenging state policy on desalination.

An emergency session of the House environment committee was called yesterday following the release of the departmental report damning government water policy and decrying the state of the island’s water reserves.

The report, by Geological Survey director George Constantinou, has caused a rift within the Agriculture Ministry. The Water Development department insists desalination is the answer to the island’s chronic water shortage problem. But Constantinou plainly states in the report that desalination is not the answer and that the government should instead focus on proper management of existing water resources.

Desalination, according to the report, is costly and polluting and does not address the core problem of over-consumption of water.

Deputies yesterday demanded that — in the light of the report’s findings — the cabinet hold off on making a final decision on whether to go ahead with two mobile desalination plants.

Opposition from local residents has already forced the cabinet to go slow on plans to install mobile plants at Zakaki, Limassol, and Ayios Theodoros in the Larnaca district.

Constantinou’s report was compiled in April 1998, but was kept under wraps till earlier this week, when leaks of report extracts to the press forced Agriculture Minister Costas Themistocleous to release the whole study.

The minister also released confidential internal memos on the desalination question written earlier this year by Constantinou and Water Development department chief engineer Nicos Tsiourtis.

“We believe the water needs of Cyprus can be covered without the construction of the two mobile desalination units,” Constantinou states in his memo.

“Existing surface and underground water reserves can be used to cover needs, ” he adds.

In reply, Tsiourtis states that desalination is needed to cover the shortfall in water reserves due to a drastic reduction in flows into dams and depletion of groundwater reserves.

Constantinou reiterated his position to the environment committee yesterday, adding that he spoke for all the experts in his department. “Without a doubt, correct management and protection of water resources must be the real aim of the ministry’s overall strategy,” the government scientist said.

Current policy was leading the country down the road to desertification, Constantinou alleged.

Limassol deputies Rikos Erotokritou and Yiannakis Thoma suggested “big interests” were the hidden reason behind the government’s eagerness to add more desalination plants to the existing one at Dhekelia.

Contracts have already been signed for a second static desalination plant at Larnaca.

Cyprus’ water needs could be covered without the need for multi-million pound investment in desalination, the two deputies said.

Committee chairman Demetris Iliades lambasted the government for not releasing the report earlier. Simeon Matsis, director of the Agriculture Ministry, replied that the report had appeared in newspapers and had been forwarded to House president Spyros Kyprianou. Iliades said he would be sending a letter to Themistocleous insisting that any final decision on the mobile desalination plants be postponed till his committee had had adequate time to pore over Constantinou’s findings.

Paradoxically, Constantinou’s report contains figures supporting Tsiourtis’ argument that ground-water reserves are being over-taxed and that flow into dams has dropped over the past ten years.

“Average flow into dams has been reduced by 30 per cent (over the past ten years),” Constantinou’s report states. Rainfall has dropped by 14 per cent over the past decade, the report adds.

“Most underground aquifers are over-pumped with resultant salinisation of coastal aquifers and drops in the water levels in other aquifers,” the report states.

But the conclusion Constantinou draws from these worrying trends is opposite to Tsiourtis’. He states that increasing available water only leads to increased demand and usage, creating a vicious cycle.

“The infrastructure created to gather water has increased water demands beyond the limits of sustainable reserves,” the report states.

The argument is that further desalination plants would only increase demand further. Much better to reduce demand, particularly in agriculture, and manage existing reserves sustainably, the Geological Survey chief suggests.

Constantinou suggests that extraction from underground reserves be strictly controlled and limited.

The current extraction rate is recorded as about 300 million cubic metres a year. A sustainable rate — that would allow replenishment of aquifers by rainfall — would be closer to 160 million cubic metres a year, Constantinou says.

The expert points the finger at agriculture as the main water wastage culprit, and says the government should consider ending water cuts to homes as these save relatively little water.

He notes that agriculture uses 78 per cent of available water and suggests the government grant no further licences for water-hungry crops. There should be a gradual movement away from crops requiring constant irrigation, Constantinou says.

He also suggests that the price of water be increased to reflect its true cost and encourage conservation. “The average sale price of underground water is five times lower than the real cost,” he notes.

Constantinou also says dam water should be used in preference to underground water, because, if it is not, it is very quickly lost through evaporation.

Certain groundwater reserves should be put aside and saved for use in time of emergency, the expert recommends.