Can water from Turkey help reunify Cyprus?

A recently completed pipeline crossing beneath the Mediterranean will carry 75 million cubic meters of fresh water annually from Turkey to the northern i.e. Turkish part of the divided island of Cyprus. While this is certainly a positive development for the isolated Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which is suffering not only from severe droughts but also from an international embargo since its unilateral declaration of independence in 1983, the important question is what effect it is going to have with regard to prospects of reunification of the island. Will the water coming from Turkey through the pipeline, which is named Barış Suyu (Peace Water) by Turks, live up to its name and bring the two communities living on Cyprus closer together, or will it have the opposite effect by turning the Turkish part of the island into a dependence of Turkey?

Turkish Cypriot farmer stands next to a goat pen on his farm in the village of Kirni in the breakaway northern, Turkish Cypriot part of ethnically split Cyprus.

Turkish Cypriot farmer stands next to a goat pen on his farm in the village of Kirni in the breakaway northern, Turkish Cypriot part of ethnically split Cyprus.

One thing is for certain: Turkish Cypriots desperately need the water coming from Turkey. Rainfall and groundwater fall short of meeting the Turkish Cypriots’ demand which is projected to rise to 200 million cubic meters by 2020, with 70% of the amount to be used for irrigation and the rest for households. TRNC’s water storage capacity of 17 million cubic meters and its minuscule desalination capacity contribute little to the needs of the economy and a steady flow of water from the mainland is a must.

The water coming through the pipelines will make the Turkish Cypriots, who already count on subsidies from Ankara for their economic survival, even more dependent on Turkey. One scenario is, therefore, that being more closely bound to the mainland, Turkish Cypriots will have less freedom when negotiating reunification with their Greek Cypriot compatriots, which will make it difficult to reach a solution. This, however, does not necessarily have to be the case.

In the meantime, Greek Cypriots need water as much as their Turkish neighbors do. Their demand for water is expected to rise to 290 million cubic meters by 2020, and while this part of the island has the advantage of possessing much greater storage capacity than the northern part, 330 million cubic meters to be precise, reliance on groundwater and expensive desalination processes put the Greek Cypriots in an unsustainable position with respect to sourcing their water. Conveying water from Greece is an option that was tried in the past but could not be repeated as it is five times more costly than desalinating sea water.

Drought effects in Cyprus

Drought effects in Cyprus

If the Peace Water project can be expanded to cover the entire island, it can bring the two communities closer to each other by establishing a basis of mutual interests between the two. With regards to the possibility of extending the project to the Greek part of Cyprus, TRNC’s Foreign Minister Özdil Nami said in a visit to Ankara in February that “suggestions were made to the Greek Cypriot side on this issue and a hand of friendship was extended.” In the meantime, Ankara does not rule out the possibility of including the Greek part of Cyprus in the project either, albeit under the condition that water will follow peace, not the other way round.

Economic interdependence can and does reduce the likelihood of conflict between the nations and have positive spillover effects onto the political realm. Both communities of the island have to gain substantially from sharing the water; and while water cannot reunify Cyprus on its own, it can supply the economic rationale for an already existing political process and help to facilitate the negotiations.

The good news is that after decades of trials and failures, repeated attempts for peace that bore no fruit, political brinkmanship and distrust between the Turks and Greeks of Cyprus, there are now finally grounds for optimism. Both sides are effectively expressing their determination to achieve a solution for the island and genuinely embark on a dialogue to that end. Talks between the two sides resumed in May following the election of Mustafa Akıncı as the president of TRNC, who, together with his Greek Cypriot counterpart Nicos Anastasiades, not only stated a shared desire for an accord and promised to resume negotiations in a constructive manner, but also launched a number of concrete confidence building measures that took immediate effect. There is now a “new chance for Cyprus,” as the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martii Ahtisari wrote with three colleagues in an opinion piece in Project Syndicate: “even the conflict’s most hardened observers recognize that peace may now be within reach.”

For sure, there is no guarantee that there will be a deal. The issue is extremely complicated and laden with historical baggage, and shared goodwill is not always sufficient to solve problems. However, given the positive political environment, now seems to be the time for shared economic interests and political rapprochement to reinforce each other to produce concrete results in Cyprus. If the water coming from Turkey can be made to flow to the Greek part of Cyprus as well, this can strengthen the case made by those who want the island to be reunited as a federal state. If the objective is a reunified Cyprus, the idea of bringing much needed water to the entire island can be a building stone.

Turkish Cypriot scholar Ahmet Sözen has recently written about the “positive mood surrounding the talks in Cyprus” and stated that at this stage it is of vital importance to prepare both communities of the island for a federative solution and to make efforts for closing the large confidence gap between them that has developed over decades. A vision for sharing water can certainly support the confidence building efforts between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots and help to prepare them for a joint future. After all, water is the source of life.

Dr. Altay Atlı is a lecturer at the Asian Studies program of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul and a non-resident research fellow at the Center for Global Studies of Shanghai University.

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