- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2014

An ambitious pipeline project linking reservoirs in Turkey to the parched, isolated Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is on track to bring much needed drinking water to the island by year’s end.

Engineers behind the Baris Su (“Peace Water”) project said earlier this month they passed the halfway point on the 66-mile undersea pipeline, and could be delivering fresh water from Turkey to Turkish Cypriots for drinking and agricultural development by the end of the year.

When completed, the $500 million-plus pipeline is projected to deliver some 19.8 billion gallons of water annually and give the ethnic Turkish enclave significant new economic and political leverage in the standoff with the majority Greek Cypriot community that has kept the Mediterranean island divided for four decades.

Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who visited the island this month, say they hope the prospect of a reliable water source will spur the local economy and give fresh impetus to reconciliation talks between the two communities. Mr. Erdogan told Turkish Cypriot leaders the water could be used by both the Greek and Turkish communities, but only “as long as [Greek Cypriots] take the hand of peace we are offering.”

Water is a constant concern for the island, which has intensified desalination and conservation efforts in recent years to compensate. The Cyprus News Agency reported in August that the island’s reservoirs were at only 37 percent capacity, down from 73 percent a year earlier. The Baris Su pipeline is designed to meet the Turkish Republic’s drinking and irrigation needs through at least 2040.

“Water is like oil and gas for the region,” Veysel Ayhan, director of the International Middle East Peace Research Center, an Ankara think tank, told the online regional news service Al Monitor.

Beyond its political implications, the pipeline represents what experts say is a remarkable engineering feat and one Turkish officials say they could replicate in exporting water to other markets in the region.

Other countries, including China and Spain, have built giant networks to transport fresh water to regions that need it, but the Cyprus project will include several unique features.

Project engineers have constructed dams on both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides, but the heart of the project is a 50-mile underwater pipeline crossing the Mediterranean. Unlike oil and gas pipelines that typically rest on the ocean floor, the Baris Su will “hang” about 800 feet below the surface, its high-density polyethylene segments held up by a series of poles running down to the seabed.

Environmental groups have raised some concerns about the long “tethers” holding up the pipeline and whether the project can withstand tsunamis, earthquakes and the Mediterranean’s submarine traffic. But because the pipe carries water, not oil or gas, backers say any ecological damage would be limited.

Still, the project remains politically fraught on an island that has resisted past efforts at political reunification. Turkey, which first sent its troops to the northern part of the island when ethnic clashes broke out in 1974, remains the only country that officially recognizes the Turkish Republic. A U.N.-backed referendum for political reconciliation in 2004, considered the best chance to date for a settlement, fell apart after the majority Greek Cypriot community voted it down.

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