Dec. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Work has begun on the most complex phase of the world’s longest undersea water pipeline, a project to bring freshwater from Turkey beneath the Mediterranean to northern Cyprus that proponents say may help reunite the island.
The first kilometer of pipeline was laid this month on the $484 million project backed by Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to quench thirsts in the breakaway Cypriot state. The centerpiece is an 80-kilometer (50-mile) pipeline to be suspended as much as 280 meters (919 feet) under water.
The project, its finish date already pushed back three months to June by technical challenges, is proceeding as reunification talks remain stalled on a divided island the World Resources Institute ranks as one of the 17 most water-stressed places on Earth while Turkey and Turkish Cypriots have bickered with Cyprus over offshore natural gas discoveries.
Water from Turkey’s pipeline to the mythological island birthplace of the goddess of love Aphrodite should be seen as “an opportunity for peace” in Cyprus, Forestry and Water Works Minister Veysel Eroglu said.
The pipeline, though, is “not the best solution both in economic -- too expensive -- and environmental terms,” said Cypriot government environment commissioner Ioanna Panayiotou. “Water is sensitive and might get polluted during the transfer.”
Cyprus has been split between the south, a European Union member, and Turkish-held north since Turkey invaded 39 years ago to quash a coup aimed at uniting it with Greece. Greek Cypriots make up three-quarters of the 1.1 million residents on the semi-arid island, the Mediterranean’s third-largest.
Should both sides find a way to mend fences over water and gas, “it may create enough momentum to really start talking again in earnest,” said Manfred Lange, director of Cyprus Institute’s Energy, Environment and Water Research Center in Nicosia.
Turkey also plans to extend a subsea power transmission line to northern Cyprus, which received 800 million liras ($388 million) of Turkish grants and loans last year.
The source of the water in Turkey, the Dragon River, has an annual capacity of 700 million cubic meters (185 million gallons), about 1/10th or 75 million cubic meters of which is to be piped to northern Cyprus on completion.
That’s timely as almost all water in Cyprus and northern Cyprus streams “is being withdrawn every year to meet the demand of farms, businesses and households,” said Paul Reig, an associate for the Washington-based research group WRI.
That poses “risks to economic development, the environment and national security,” Reig said by e-mail. Without alternatives such as water from neighboring regions, desalination and “more efficient use of water for municipal, industrial and agriculture needs, Cyprus and northern Cyprus are vulnerable to even the slightest decrease in supply or increase in demand for freshwater.”
Greek Cypriots meanwhile are pinning hopes on a natural gas field found off the south shore in 2011 by Houston-based Noble Energy Inc. It contains an estimated 3.6 trillion to 6 trillion cubic feet whose proceeds may offset EU sanctions and financial-service industry losses. Total SA of Paris and Eni SpA of Italy are also exploring the area for gas.
“We want to exploit the use of natural gas and transfer of water and electricity from Turkey to bring peace and prosperity to the island of Cyprus and foster cooperation and friendship between Turkey and Greece,” Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu said, according to the Anatolia state news agency.
While Turkish Cypriots are relying on Turkey for fresh water, the Greek Cypriot south is building three desalination plants to add to its existing two.
Cyprus is relatively dry, rationing water on occasion with an average annual rainfall of 19.7 inches -- what much of Colombia receives each month.
The pipeline is designed to encourage farmers to diversify crops, curb overuse of aquifers and supply water around the clock, something none of the 28 municipalities in northern Cyprus currently do.
The 107-kilometer pipeline including onshore sections will link Alakopru Dam near Anamur on Turkey’s coast to a dam being built in Gecitkoy, northern Cyprus. More than 90 percent of the dam work is finished.
Spans of 500 meters will be moored to the seabed up to 1,400 meters deep, close to a mile underwater, with a buoy, tether and anchor system, designs show.
The pipeline “will be the first of its kind,” Akif Ozkaldi, head of Turkey’s General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works, said in an interview. “Such a suspended subsea pipeline of this size doesn’t exist in the world.”
Among pipeline risk-scenarios assessed were dangers from sinking vessels, quakes and tsunamis, said Ayhan Taskin, head of DSI’s drinking-water department. First designed to be 130 meters under water, final designs lowered the pipeline “to avoid submarines.”
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