Cyprus water pipeline project promises benefits, but not for negotiations


A new pipeline will ease the parched island's water shortage, but the political consequences are seen as minimal.

By Erisa Dautaj for SES European Times in Istanbul -- 12/11/12


Low water levels at the Kouris dam in Limassol, Cyprus, during a drought in 2008. [AFP]

A water pipeline project connecting Turkey with northern Cyprus could solve the island's persistent water supply problem, but its impact on stalled negotiations between the Turkish and Greek parts of the island will be marginal, experts told SETimes.

Cyprus, which receives a modest annual rainfall of about 500 milimetres, is not considered exceptionally arid. But the island's vulnerability to drought and hot, dry summers make access to water a key concern, especially for industries like agriculture and tourism.

Last month, Turkish and Northern Cyprus authorities inaugurated a groundbreaking project to transport water 170 kilometres from Mersin to Kyrenia in northern Cyprus through a pipeline suspended 250 metres beneath the Mediterranean Sea. Upon completion, the pipeline is expected to transport 75 million cubic metres of water annually.

The project could potentially provide enough water for both parts of the island when it's finished in 2014, but analysts and political experts are skeptical it will have much significance for political negotiations.

"The project will considerably strengthen northern Cyprus' position in the water sector," Kamer Kasim, deputy chairman of the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organisation, told SETimes. But, he added, it "doesn't carry vital importance for the negotiations."

UN-backed negotiations to unify the island, which has been divided since Turkey's 1974 invasion, have stalled recently, with Turkish Cypriot leaders refusing to engage in high-level talks during Cyprus's EU presidency. Greek Cypriots' 2011 decision to drill for hydrocarbon reserves in contested waters off the island's coast also drew sharp responses for Turkey.

Some analysts see the water pipeline as a way for the Turkish side to gain leverage in negotiations instead of a step toward reviving them.

"For the time being, Greek Cypriots are in a stronger position, given gas and oil exploration," Sylvia Tiryaki, deputy director of the Global Political Trends Centre at Istanbul Kultur University, told SETimes. "The water and electricity project will create some balance for the northern [part of the island]."

Turkish Cypriot leaders have fed this perception with statements that the project could give them bargaining power.

At a March 2011 groundbreaking ceremony for a dam related to the water pipeline project, northern Cyprus President Dervis Eroglu said, "In my view, the peace water project carries great importance for the Cyprus issue. It will substantially strengthen my hand at the [negotiating] table."

Attempts by SETimes to get comments from Greek officials were unsuccessful.

Vassilis Protopapas, director of the Service for Academic Affairs and Student Welfare at the Cyprus University of Technology in southern Cyprus, told SETimes that many Greek Cypriots agree with the analysis that the pipeline is a means of strengthening Turkey's influence.

"Water could be an important aspect regarding the political future of the island. However, Greek Cypriots are quite skeptical with everything that connects the island with Turkey," he said. "They don't trust Turkey, so they don't want to be dependent on Turkey, even if it is the only state that could help in solving the problem of water."

Protopapas added that popular suspicions have been fanned by the Greek Cypriot media. "Turkey is being considered by the media as an 'all times enemy.' I personally do not share this opinion, but this how the majority feels."

In the face of this skepticism, the Turkish government has portrayed the project as a positive step in Greek-Turkish relations.

"[The project] shows once again that Turkey is the Greek part's natural neighbour, no matter how far it sees itself from Turkey," Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay said in the groundbreaking ceremony of the project. "The Greek part should now see the profits of a peaceful solution [to the Cyprus issue], rather than designing a future clear of the people of Turkish Cyprus."

Despite the political dimensions of the project, some Turkish Cypriots are looking toward eventual positive results for the negotiations.

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"We hope [the project] contributes to both the [island's] economy and the peace process in Cyprus," Ozdil Nami, a Nicosia deputy from the Republican Turkish Party-United Powers in the northern Cyprus assembly, told SETimes.

Nami said that Greek Cypriots, who voted against a UN-backed peace plan in 2004, might see the opportunity to alleviate the island's water crisis as an incentive to push harder for reunification.

"They are not much aware of the benefits of a solution," Nami said of Greek Cypriots.

The Turkish government will finance the project, which will cost about 527,000 euros (1.12 billion TL). Cyprus will then have to pay 0.40 euros (about .90 kuruş) per cubic metre of water that will be transported to the island.

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