Turkey's peace pipe to Cyprus

The water pipeline slated to reunify Cyprus faces strong opposition on environmental, cultural and political fronts from both Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

al-monitor A family takes a stroll next to a reservoir in Myrtoy that will receive fresh water from Turkey via a water pipeline project linking Turkey to northern Cyprus, Oct. 17, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou.
Pinar Tremblay

Pinar Tremblay


Topics covered

water desalination, recep tayyip erdogan, pipeline, greek cypriots, dam, cyprus

Oct 29, 2015

On Oct. 17, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan inaugurated a controversial water pipeline link with Turkish-governed northern Cyprus. He gave a speech about the $450 million project first in the Anamur district of Mersin where the water pipeline originates, and then he traveled to Kyrenia, the tourism capital of Turkish northern Cyprus.

The project, known as Peace Water, is being promoted as the “project of the century” by the Turkish government. Erdogan emphasized, “If the Greek Cypriots say that they also want to utilize this water, we name this water Peace Water and we give it to them too, because the important thing for us is the humanity.”

The project was officially initiated in March 2011 with the construction of Alakopru Dam in Anamur.

Dursun Yildiz, director of the Hydropolitics Academy Association, told Al-Monitor the line is 80 kilometers (50 miles) long and runs 250 meters (275 yards) below sea level. It is expected to deliver about 20 billion gallons of water annually to Cyprus.

“Given the scarcity of water and the growing population of the island, the idea of bringing water from outside originated about 20 years ago,” he told Al-Monitor. “Indeed, from 1998 until 2002, water was carried in bladders over the sea. This method was not efficient.

“A feasibility report was prepared in 1999 on a pipeline to carry water. The final project cost is $450 million. It is crucial to note that this is the biggest project carrying water from one country to another in the world. It is unique and has a strategic importance in the eastern Mediterranean.”

Experts and Cypriots concur the island needs water. Consecutive years of droughts and overuse of aquifers have decreased the amount and quality of water. Residents complain about seawater mixing with groundwater sources, disturbing daily life and agricultural irrigation. The salination problem is no longer limited to coastal areas.

The pipeline promises fresh drinking water for at least the next 30 years. Turkey’s government insists the project could be the first step toward cooperation and peace between the two sides of the divided island.

That said, the Justice and Development Party's political optimism has not been sufficient to curtail opposition to the project.

Groups from both sides of the island have voiced considerable criticism, claiming the long-term costs and harmful effects of the project outweigh the promised benefits. They see the pipeline as counterproductive to solving the water problem because it will merely increase the island’s water dependency rather than educating people on methods of water conservation, minimizing waste and finding alternative, self-sufficient methods such as building a desalination facility.

Environmental groups such as the Biologists Association in Nicosia, Cyprus, have denounced the water line as “not the project of the century, but the mistake of the century.” Hasan Sarpten, general secretary of the association, claims that cheaper, safer and cleaner methods are possible to preserve and distribute clean water to the island.

But Greek Cypriot Yiorgos Kakouris, a seasoned political journalist from Politis newspaper, told Al-Monitor, “For a country that has seasonal droughts imprinted into the DNA of its people, any additional water is good water. Another argument is that this water can refill the underground reserves and help the situation become more sustainable in the long term.”

Yet, Kakouris raised a red flag. “I gather from the positions of both Turkish Cypriot activists and politicians, as well as from the official position of the republic, that it's not enough to ‘rescue’ Cyprus from its perpetual lack of water.”

The Greek side has focused on desalination; however, the report from the Hydropolitics Academy Association assesses that seawater desalination is not a long-term, sustainable solution, either.

A 2007 report from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) studying interbasin water transfers notes three cases from Spain, South Africa and Australia with considerable problems. In the case of Spain’s Tagus-Segura pipeline, the water deficit has grown since the water transfer. The WWF report suggests underground water pipelines should be a last resort after steps such as reducing water demand, recycling wastewater and supplementing water supplies locally.

Ecological damage

Both the Association of North Cyprus Biologists and WWF warn of ecological damage on both sides of the pipeline. On the sending end, in Anamur, several towns were sacrificed so the new dam could be built. Dozens of villages in Turkey are now underwater, and their residents were forced to leave without proper compensation. Villagers’ complaints have fallen on deaf ears.

Expected donor-basin problems are not limited to villages lost to the dam. Yildiz told Al-Monitor that only 8% of the river’s flow will be transported to Cyprus. However, that kind of medium- and long-term impact it will have in Mersin province is not known. Reduced water flow could harm fish migration and spawning, and decrease water tables, according to the WWF report.

Birol Cinar of Turkey State Waterworks acknowledged last year that it would not be possible to guarantee that the environment would not be damaged. But he argued that the project has been treated with the utmost attention and care to preserve nature.

Political damage

One crucial issue, and the source of protests, is on the political front. Here the Turkish government faces opposition from two ends: the Greek side of the island and the Turkish Cypriots. For the Greek Cypriot government’s concerns, journalist Kakouris explains, “The project deepens and solidifies occupation and the status quo in the long term.” Although referred to as the “peace river” by Turkish authorities, there is no evidence to show Greek Cypriots were involved in the decision-making. There is also concern that the pipeline could increase property values in the north, making an exchange — when the day comes — between the two sides all the more difficult.

Kakouris raises another red flag: “There exists that part of the deal between the Turkish Cypriot authorities and Turkey that the water itself belongs to Turkey to sell and that the land the pipes will cross in the north will be taken over by the state.”

Still, the most potent opposition comes from the people of northern Cyprus — the beneficiaries of the water. While Erdogan was attending the inauguration ceremony, there was a protest against him with banners reading “The water you bring cannot cleanse the blood you spilled.” Referring to the Oct. 10 Ankara suicide bombings, protesters said, “We are in mourning. We do not welcome those who refer to us as ‘spoon-fed.’”

However, the opposition from Turkish Cypriots goes beyond the latest political matter. In July 2011, Kibris Postasi, a Cypriot daily published in Turkish, detailed previously unpublicized portions of the water transfer agreement between Turkey and Cyprus. It noted that bids for the project were open only to Turkish companies. All labor, construction materials and tools were to be bought in from Turkey, providing little or no profit to the Turkish Cypriot government. Turkey is allowed to sell the water that was transferred to the island to third parties, while the host government pays for all taxes and fees incurred. The most controversial part of the arrangement is: Who will be selling the water to the Turkish Cypriots? While Cypriots want the water to be managed by local municipalities, the Turkish government wants the sale to be arranged by a private company, bypassing the municipalities.

Critics view the water pipeline project as another sign of expansion of neo-Ottoman aspirations, increasing not only political, but also economic control to the northern part of the island. Nikos Moudouros, a professor of Turkish and Middle Eastern Studies, told Al-Monitor that the project ignores the existence of Turkish Cypriots. Moudouros’ analysis explains the opposition of Turkish Cypriots who complain about being marginalized and alienated from the decision-making process.

This was evinced by former Interior Minister Efkan Ala’s words at an Oct. 25 rally in Bursa: “Cyprus owes us now.” Also, Erdogan expressed his anger that Turkish social media ignored his grand project.

Erdogan’s insistence on bragging rights while silencing domestic opposition may produce a surprising outcome of expanding understanding between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. Only then might Peace Water live up to its name.

Editor's note: This article has been updated since its initial publication. 

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