NICOSIA — Cyprus turns into near desert in the summer and is counting on desalination to provide green fairways for golfers and save the country’s troubled tourism industry.
But environmentalists fear the impact of building a dozen more desalination plants to enable the number of golf courses on the island to multiply from three to 17.
To cope with serious drought — which saw Cyprus reservoirs dry up this year — the eastern Mediterranean island is one of the main producers of desalinated water in Europe alongside Italy and Spain.
“The golf courses project is out of order! The aim is not to serve Cypriot tourism but business development and developers,” protested Costas Papastavros, an agriculture and natural resources ministry official.
“And in order to serve this development we need a hell of a lot of extra water, and the energy,” he said at a climate change conference in Nicosia.
The government says “there will be a desalination plant for each golf course and that they will request renewable sources of energy. But there is a gap between the theory and the practice,” said Papastavros.
He calculated that about 30 million cubic metres (one billion cubic feet) of water will be needed for the golf courses, compared to the population’s annual needs of 85 million cubic metres (almost three billion cubic feet) of drinking water.
For the past year, with reservoirs turned into parched dirt bowls during the summer by low rainfall, water to households has been rationed, with the mains supply running only three half-days a week.
But the left-wing government of President Demetris Christofias is pressing ahead with the golf courses rescue plan which was initiated by the previous administration, and the cabinet voted to pass the project in December.
Cyprus counts on revenues from its tourism sector, under threat from the global economic crisis, for 15 percent of its gross domestic product.
The global credit squeeze in recession-hit Europe is blamed for the slump in the local tourism market, with arrivals down 14.2 percent for the first two months of 2009.
“Bookings for 2009 are coming in slowly and there is a decrease in numbers compared to the same period last year,” said Tourism Minister Antonis Paschalides, adding that 2008 was also a difficult year for Cyprus.
Hotel bookings are said to be around 25 percent down for this summer, with the government expecting an overall 10 percent drop in arrivals by the end of the year.
Paschalides said golf courses would allow Cyprus to win new markets and to extend the tourism season from the traditional summertime of sun, sea and sand.
“The water quantity needed for the irrigation of the golf courses will be produced by desalination units which will be working with renewable sources of energy,” he said.
“With this decision the water balance in Cyprus will not be disturbed while simultaneously the use of renewable sources will increase.”
Environmentalists are not convinced that such an expansion will not require fuel-fired energy generation and the emission of carbon dioxide which drives global warming.
“We are strongly opposed to this project,” said Christos Theodorou, who heads the Federation of Environment and Ecological Organisations in Cyprus.
“Our main reason is the environmental cost which is unavoidable regarding the energy to produce water through desalination plants, the changes to wildlife, the use of chemical fertilisation, and pollution of undersoil.”
Moreover, “every golf course is not limited in term of area, which means that they will be surrounded by luxurious villas and other infrastructure such as restaurants, hotels and swimming pools,” he said.
Theodorou said the technology for the use of renewable energy was not advanced enough to keep up with such growth, while environmental awareness among the population was also off the pace in international terms.
“In Cyprus, we don’t give much attention to environmental issues,” said Papastavros. “Politicians are under pressure from rich people who want this kind of development. The main issue here is … (building) apartments.”
The government has approved more than 350 million euros (440 million dollars) in stimulus measures to stave off job losses in the key tourism and construction sectors which contribute a combined 30 percent of GDP.
Due to concerns that the global financial crisis will trigger lower tourism revenues the finance ministry revised its GDP growth forecast downwards to 3.7 percent for 2008, and a slower 2.1 percent for this year.
The European Commission estimates Cyprus’s growth will be closer to one percent.