The issue of Cyprus and its reunification has bedeviled Turkish-Greek relations since 1974 and cast a persistent pall over Turkish efforts to join the European Union, especially since the Republic of Cyprus joined the EU on May 1, 2004. Now the Mediterranean’s third-largest island—after this year’s precipitation plummeted to a fifth of its annual levels following four years of little to no rain—is gripped by its worst drought in 50 years, leading both Athens and Ankara to scramble to provide succor. The island’s reservoirs are at critically low levels and subsequently demand is overwhelming the island’s two water desalination plants, which collectively produce 100,000 cubic meters of water daily for an island of nearly 800,000 inhabitants. In but one example, the reservoir serving the 177,000 residents of the southern port city of Limassol has only 800,000 cubic meters of water remaining for a city consuming 45,000 cubic meters of water daily.
Cyprus’s two patron states are pursuing differing approaches to resolving the hydrological crisis. Greece is to ship water to the island in tankers. The Republic of Cyprus has ordered 8 million cubic meters of water from Greece, with tankers scheduled to make 200 transits until November, but the project has suffered numerous delays and missteps.
Turkey, while currently also preparing to send tankers, is planning to construct a Mediterranean undersea pipeline to the Kuzey Kibris Turk Cumhuriyeti (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – KKTC) in order to resolve the problem.
On July 24 KKTC Environment and Natural Resources Minister Mustafa Gokmen met with Turkish Environment Minister Veysel Eroglu to discuss the ambitious project, endorsed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whereby Ankara would build a $9.5 million, 50-mile pipeline from Anamur, Turkey’s southernmost point in Mersin province, 800 feet below the Mediterranean to the Turkish Cypriot coastal city of Girne. The pipeline, projected to take 27 months to construct, would supply nearly 75 million cubic meters annually, with 15 million cubic meters processed by a water treatment facility to be built near Nicosia for drinking water, and the remainder used to irrigate the Meserya plain (Zaman, July 25).
The interim solutions to the island’s water shortages may yet be resolved by broader talks between the island’s two communities. On July 25 Republic of Cyprus President Demetris Christofias and KKTC leader Mehmet Ali Talat met and agreed on September 3 to begin discussions on resolving the issue of Cyprus’s division under the aegis of the United Nations. Christofias and Talat issued a joint statement noting, “The aim of the fully fledged negotiations is to find a mutually acceptable solution to the Cyprus problem which will safeguard fundamental and legitimate rights and interests of Greek and Turkish Cypriots” (Embassy of the Republic of Cyprus press office, July 25).
Wasting no time, two days later UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s recently appointed special adviser for Cyprus, former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, arrived on the island to facilitate the dialogue, telling reporters, “All of us at the UN are looking forward to helping in any way we can with the process that as the Secretary General pointed out made an important step forward on Friday with the statement by the leaders” (Cyprus News Agency, July 28). Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, himself a Turk, also welcomed the news about the opening of comprehensive talks on Cyprus (Anadolu Ajansi, July 28).
Downer has his work cut out for him, however. Prior to his agreement with Christofias, Talat reiterated an offer made by Erdogan on July 19—when he visited Cyprus for festivities commemorating the July 20, 1974 incursion—that Turkey would provide drinking water shipped in by tankers to Greek Cypriots, making “it very clear that Turkey is ready to help” to alleviate the water shortage, to which Cypriot government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou replied that “water diplomacy” is not possible as long as the Cyprus issue remains unresolved (Zaman, July 24). Underlining the diplomatic distance that still has to be traveled, Cypriot Parliamentary Chairman Marios Karoyian characterized Erdogan’s visit to the KKTC as paranomos (“illegal”) (Kypriako Praktoreio Eidiseon, July 19). The reunification issue remains prickly; the Republic of Cyprus government last week wrote a letter to U.S. Ambassador Ronald Schlicher complaining that Washington disbursed USAID programs to northern Cyprus without consulting with the Cypriot administration (Ethnos tis Kiriakis, July 27).
The upcoming reunification talks already have a major foreign supporter: Russia. Moscow’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement observing, “A new and real step has been made in the right direction. The outcome of the meeting clearly demonstrates the political will and constructive mood of the (Greek and Turkish Cypriot) leaders. We hope this will finally lead to a stable political settlement on the basis of relevant UN Security Council resolutions” (Interfax, July 28). During his visit Erdogan noted, “Water is essential for the Turkish Cypriots and this project may turn into a ‘peace water’ project.”
The Republic of Cyprus should reconsider the Turkish pipeline offer, as it is a permanent solution to the problem, and could well turn into a “peace water project” benefiting all Cypriots regardless of background. A sweltering and parched community can only hope that the discussions prove fruitful, as thirst is apolitical.