On Dry, Divided Island of Cyprus, 'Just Add Water' Only Raises Heat

Water-rich Turkey bails out breakaway north, deepening rift with the rival Greek south.

OUR dinner guests were due in two hours when calamity struck. The washing machine was stuck in mid-cycle, dishes were piled up in the kitchen sink, and tiny snails speckled the unwashed lettuce. Our water had run out.

Cyprus is suffering one of its worst droughts this century, making water shortages the most pressing problem after the cold war with Turkey. Reservoirs are less than 15 percent full, rains are not due for weeks, and rationing means the mains are opened just three nights a week.

Most of the island's 630,000 Greek Cypriots depend on two water-intensive activities: tourism and agriculture.

Now, perhaps for the first time, some are looking a little enviously across the island's dividing line. Because of their international isolation and a European Union embargo on their products, Turkish Cypriots earn on average four times less than Greek Cypriots - but at least their acute drought is being solved.

Turkey, one of the few water-rich countries in the region, is tugging huge, Moby Dick-size balloons of drinking water 60 miles across the Mediterranean to northern Cyprus. Turkish President Suleiman Demirel visited July 25 to inaugurate the extraordinary project amid great fanfare.

Three of the balloons, each more than 300 feet long, 80 feet wide, and swollen with 350,000 cubic feet of water - enough to fill about 150 backyard-style swimming pools - are due to make the journey each week. Ultimately, a total of 245 million cubic feet of water is to be delivered.

Turkey also plans to lay a pipeline under the sea to provide irrigation water for parched northern Cyprus. There could be no better symbol of the umbilical cord that exists between the Turkish motherland and its tiny protectorate.

In 1974, Turkey invaded northern Cyprus following a coup by right-wing Greek Cypriots. Greek Cypriots now plan to deploy Russian-made antiaircraft missiles in November. Turkey has threatened to knock them out, and since Greece has a defense pact with Cyprus, this could ignite a Greco-Turkish war.

Turkish Cypriots in recent months have been forging ever-closer links to Turkey, making the island's reunification look more unlikely. Many Turkish Cypriots view the water deal as a sign that northern Cyprus, recognized only by Turkey, can at last survive as a separate state, albeit with crucial Turkish help.

Mr. Demirel said the deliveries were "just the beginning" of northern Cyprus's economic integration with his country. Last week, Turkey also announced it was integrating the Turkish Cypriot telephone system. Turkish officials say they are retaliating against the European Union's decision last December to begin accession talks with Cyprus, which is represented internationally by the Greek Cypriots.

International mediators used to take some comfort in the fact that necessity forced Greek and Turkish Cypriots to share some resources, which would help to build trust. The Greek Cypriots provided the north's electricity free of charge and water pipes still cross the island. The sides worked together on a sewage-treatment plant for Nicosia.

But for two years, the Turkish Cypriots have been self-sufficient in electricity, thanks to a huge power plant completed with Turkey's help. Now, Rauf Denktash, the Turkish Cypriot leader, has offered to share the water with the Greek Cypriots in return for "good neighborly" relations. Tantalizing as the offer may be, it will likely be rejected. Mr. Denktash implied his offer was conditional on the Greek Cypriots recognizing his breakaway state. Some Greek Cypriots ask, only half in jest, how they would know the water has not been poisoned.

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