The environmental risks and opportunities of a Cyprus solution

DRIVEN by EU accession, peace talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots have begun again. Depending on the results of planned referenda on both sides, a solution may well be found to the decades-old political division of Cyprus. For 30 years, the island has developed and grown asymmetrically. The south has prospered through vigorous development of the tourist sector and establishment as a regional business centre. With prosperity has come infrastructure, rising living standards, and widespread land development, especially along the coast. But there has also been a price to be paid – the slow destruction of the south’s natural environment, and inevitably, the tourist backlash against over-development. The historic combination of EU accession and a possible reconciliation will bring, among many other potential changes, major opportunities and risks for the island’s fragile and unique environment.

Thirty years ago, much of the southern seafront was wild and unspoiled. Ayia Napa and Latchi were quiet fishing villages, the nearby beaches and shorelines pristine, havens for wildlife and rare plants. Today, much of the south’s wild marine and coastal habitat has disappeared under the bulldozer’s blade, replaced by resorts and holiday flats. Now, the south’s last frontier, the Akamas Peninsula and the coast north of Polis, is the developer’s target. Villas, hotels and flats are sprouting like concrete mushrooms, even now encroaching within the boundaries of the Akamas National Park proposed and supported by the World Bank and the EU. Examples of coastal over-development in places like Spain and Portugal have clearly shown the consequences that await the south, should citizens and government fail to act to protect the remaining beauty spots and wild-lands – the very treasures which tourists come to see and enjoy. The effects of unrestrained and poorly planned development are already starting to be seen. Falling tourist revenues and declining reputation, coupled with rising prices and loss of business to the competition, have all been widely covered in the island’s press over the last few years.

Meanwhile, over the same period, the north of the island has remained relatively quiet. Economic development has been limited, and tourism muted. As a consequence, any visitor to the north today will find a beautiful landscape largely unchanged since 1974. Long stretches of white sand beach backed by windswept dunes, wooded hills, and quiet stretches of rural landscape. Some of the best remaining Mediterranean turtle nesting beaches are here, and the Karpass Peninsula rivals Akamas as a stock of unique species, landforms, and natural habitat. The tourism potential of the north is now starting to be recognised, and if properly managed and developed sensitively and in an environmentally responsible manner, will present serious competition to the tired and monotone southern beach resorts. Clearly, the big southern developers are salivating over the prospect of an open north.

The scene is set. A solution in the context of EU membership will bring huge potential opportunities for conservation and responsible environmental management, but also real risks of uncontrolled and rapid development which could horribly disfigure northern landscapes and destroy irreplaceable habitat, some of which has even yet not been catalogued. A development free-for-all in the north could wreak untold damage before the authorities have even had the time to develop a conservation strategy which balances the need for development and economic improvement in the north, with protection of areas which represent legitimate long-term opportunities for preserving the last and best parts of Cyprus’ natural heritage.

Cyprus is set to join the EU in May. And perhaps it is with the EU that our best opportunities for environmentally responsible development in Cyprus lie. Meeting the EU’s strict and comprehensive environmental guidelines and protocols will require a major effort, and will cost Cyprus tens of millions of euros over the next decade. Some estimates run as high as £350 million (for the south alone), to bring much needed compliance with basic environmental norms. Cyprus needs to invest in improved domestic and hazardous waste management facilities (at the moment solid wastes re routinely dumped in unsuitable landfills, and burned in open air, releasing dangerous airborne compounds and particulates), better treatment of sewage and industrial wastewater (raw sewage is still finding its way into streams, aquifers and the sea), enhanced protection of biodiversity and endangered species (key areas deserving protection, such as the Akamas, remain highly vulnerable), air emissions controls, and more effective assessment and allocation of vital water resources. The momentum provided by EU accession is a real opportunity for protecting and improving Cyprus’ environment; it should not be squandered. But will the cost prove too great? EU membership will also require significant expenditure in almost every area of daily life, from restaurant hygiene to banking systems and food production. Will the environment again be relegated to the political backburner? If a Cyprus solution is found, implementation of EU environmental standards in the north will be an additional challenge. In general, standards of waste management, sewage treatment and air quality control lag behind those in the south, and will have to be upgraded significantly and quickly. While meeting these goals will be a challenge, it will mark one of the real benefits of joining the EU, resulting in a real and palpable improvement in the quality of life for all Cypriots for generations to come.

Cyprus stands on the edge of a unique moment in its history. Politicians on both sides should not forget that a healthy environment sustains us all, drives our prosperity, feeds us and provides us with clean water, attracts the tourists and brings in the money, and makes Cyprus a unique and wonderful place to live. EU membership and a long-sought solution to the island’s division bring a unique opportunity to make a strong and unified commitment to preserving and protecting the island’s natural heritage and resources, for the benefit of all of its citizens, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots alike.