Thomas Giraudeau, a young journalist from France, visited Cyprus as part of his research on Cyprus agriculture and the grand challenge in water shortage. Amongst the interviewees was Sofia Matsi and her work on Petrera Permaculture Land.

The report was broadcasted in June 12th 2017, during GRAND REPORTAGE radio show, on RFI. You can find the original report in French, here. Read on and find out many interesting takes on the island’s greatest agriculture challenge: climate change and the challenge to farm with a progressing lack of water.

Cyprus suffers from regular droughts. In 2008, cargos full of water, coming from Greece, have been chartered to fulfill the domestic needs. Since then, Cypriot farmers faces restrictions, and public controls. So, to reduce their consumption, some change their practices, while others reinvent them.

It’s not summer, but it’s already hot. 35°C, here, in the southern part of the island. We are near from Limassol, the second biggest city of the country, in the middle of a typical agricultural Cypriot landscape. Thousands of citrus trees are surrounding us. Lemons, oranges, grapefruits. Citrus trees represents 25% of the Cyprus irrigated land.
“My name is Nicolas Zilonos. I’m 37 years old, and I’m an agricultural engineer at the Fassouri plantations for ten years. My main job is to control the fertilization and the irrigation of our 120 000 citrus trees. We started the irrigation in April. Currently, we give 110 liters by tree, every day. In summertime, when the temperatures are really high, we give them 190 liters every day.”

Citrus trees need a lot of water. So, in this big farm, Nicolas Zilonos didn’t have choice. He installed sprinklers near every tree. “We give them recycled water, coming from water treatment plants. But they don’t filter everything. The water we use contains small particles, some dirt. In the long term, they can plug drip irrigation systems. That’s why we are using sprinklers, even if they use more water.”

To reduce his consumption, Nicolas Zilonos asked for the help of scientists. A team from the Cyprus Institute of Nicosia applied for a European project. During three years, it financed installation and using of measuring equipment. Marinos Eliades is a hydrologist and member of the team.

“We installed here the soil moisture sensors, a weather station which was measuring wind velocity, direction, rainfall, temperature, relative humidity. We were giving advices to Nicolas when to irrigate, how much to irrigate. With this project, we managed to save around 20% of water. Yearly, they spend around 2,5 million tons of water. So imagine if you save 20%, it’s around 500 000 tons. It’s a huge economy.”

A few kilometers in the north, Georges Kleopas brings us to a parcel of his pomegranate farm. He began this activity in 2004. “After three years, we had the first fruits. And we built a small factory to make fresh pomegranate juice. They don’t need too much humidity, they need dry weather. It’s not raining so much here. Mostly in the winter, about 20, 25 days. But the system we put to irrigate our pomegranate is efficient, we save a lot of water.”

Georges Kleopas began pomegranate farming in 2004

Georges Kleopas installed a drip irrigation system. It gives, precisely, 36 liters of water to each tree, every day. Others measured data are written on water meters. We can see them near every well of the farm.

“Government have registered all the wells. Every well has a permit, given by public authorities. We have the authorization to take a certain amount of underground water. It depends on how many trees you have, and on the type of trees you’re cultivating. If you grow citrus, it’s not the same amount as for olive trees. They have some standards, they know how much water the trees need.” “They come, twice a year, to check the data on our water meters. If we don’t pass the amount, the quota, it’s OK. We always have respected the limits. They block the water meter to be the only ones to check. If you try to manipulate the water meters, they can see it and maybe you have penalty.”

We are in the Water Development Department. A branch of the ministry of Agriculture in charge of wells control. We have an appointment with Nicos Neocleous, the Acting chief water officer of the Department. The interview was well prepared. The man has files in front of him. Reading them, he draws an overview of this year’s situation.

“Currently, the storage in the dams is 29% of the total capacity. Last year, it was about 36%. We have already decided to cut about 16,5% of water given to the farmers. Maybe they will have some problems with their crops.”
To limit the damage, and properly irrigate their crops, a lot of farmers take water from underground, using private boreholes. Charalambos Demetriou is in charge of the boreholes’ control in the department. “Currently, in Cyprus, we have about 120 000 boreholes registered. Many of those are not operating now, but they are registered. Also, there are other boreholes without licenses. Currently, we expect that there are 40 to 50 000 active boreholes. Out of those, we have registered 35 000 boreholes.”

About 2/3 of the illegal boreholes are located in the Kokkinochoria area, in the eastern part of the island. Charalambos Demetriou is showing us a map, outside his office.

“The aquifer of the region is below sea level, because of the over pumping. In this area, they don’t have water enough. So they drill many boreholes, sometimes they have ten boreholes in only one parcel. The water is semi-saline, so when the water in the borehole becomes saline, they close the borehole, and they drill another one, maybe 50 meters away from the previous one.”

“In this area, we have to make a long-term plan, for the 200 to 300 coming years. Everybody has to reduce the amount of water they extract from the aquifer, and use more recycled water.”
To change practices, farmers can face fines, penalties if they still use their illegal boreholes, as explained by Charalambos Demetriou.

“They have to go to court. The penalty stipulated in the law is 12000 euros or one year in prison. Of course, it’s a maximum. Up to now, it’s a few hundred euros. And the director of the Water Development Department has the right to close the borehole.”

Iacovos Iacovides is a former employee of the ministry of Agriculture. The hydrologist created its own consulting firm, specialized in water management. We meet him in his little office.

“In the last two or three years, the situation has worsened in the area. The biggest part of the aquifer has been sea-intruded. Nonetheless, the farmers still continue to pump saline water. You will see individual desalination plants, desalinating the groundwater to use it for potatoes. It’s happening, first of all, because potatoes is very beneficial and they want to irrigate as much as possible. And the other one is probably political lobbying. It’s strong in the area. Since the time I joined the Water Development Department, in other areas, we were able to enforce laws and water meters like in Akrotiri. But in the Kokinochoria area, we were never able to enforce this.”

“Fines are applied to those who are using illegal boreholes. Can it work?”
“No, I don’t think so. What is important is for example the electricity authority. They won’t provide power to the pumps of the farmers unless they show a permit from the WDD. This is good control.”
Iacovos Iacovides also gives a realistic report on the future of the Cypriot agricultural sector.

“It’s becoming very difficult for the Cypriot agriculture. Young people are getting away from agriculture. It will reduce in size. For citrus, I don’t think we have that water resources that can maintain an exportable production, like other countries such as Morocco and Spain. There is some future if they switch to aromatic crops, crops that don’t need too much water. There is some kind of switch towards that direction.”

“I am peeling brought beans, which is the latest harvest we have, a very nice leguminous food, very nutritious, source of protein. And we can also store all the surplus for our summer foods in the freezer. This has been my family’s land for the past 30 years. My dad started growing trees here. Three years ago, I found that about permaculture and it really triggered my interest. So I wanted to come up and start implementing technics.”
Sofia Matsi is managing a small farm, a few kilometers in the central part of the island. 3 000 square meters of fig trees, olive trees, pomegranate, and vegetables.

“Everything in my garden can suffer from heat. The tomatoes I choose, the eggplants, the peppers. I give them the minimal amount of water. That’s my goal, just to find traditional seeds, of course, that can endure the very harsh conditions that I have to put them through. Very high temperatures in mid-July, going up to 40-42°C. And, at night, in the winter, it can drop to -5°.”

A pipe of irrigation surrounds this fig tree in Petrera Permaculture LandSofia Matsi is using underground water to irrigate her trees. She doesn’t have choice. Isolated, in an incised valley, her farm is not linked to the water distribution network, coming from dams or treatment plants. Fortunately, her underground water is clean. But in limited quantities.

“The water table is very low. We need to pump a little bit, and then wait for an hour until it fills up again and then we do it again. We store the water in a tank and then with a central system I distribute the water throughout the three levels of the land. The most important thing is to use a drip irrigation system. Beyond that, you need to work on your soil. If it cannot withhold water, then it doesn’t matter how much water you put, you lose it. And then of course, you need a life soil so you need a covered soil.”

Sofia Matsi irrigates her vegetables with a drip irrigation system“Can we see your technics?”
“Sure. This is the easy one. It’s a big bowl of straw, very cheap. It keeps the moisture in so when I irrigate the water can stay here longer and the plants can drink that water throughout the day.
Another example is, you know, I make these sweets with dates and nuts. So this is all the leftovers. That keeps moisture in. It also keeps the weeds from growing so I don’t have to go around and weed. It’s a blanket covering the soil.”

Sofia Matsi learned these permaculture technics from Nicolas Netien. He’s a French engineer, living in Cyprus for the past three years. He’s managing an olive tree farm, of 42 hectares, west of Nicosia. His secret to reduce his water consumption is a fungus, inoculated on the roots.

“All our trees are inoculated with a fungus, which is living in symbiosis with the roots. It’s called a mycorhize, and it makes growing the roots system of the trees.”
“This fungus helps you to save water?”
“Of course. We don’t need much water, we are using one fifth of water advised by the ministry. Since we obtained these results, a lot of universities became interested. The Cyprus institute applied for a European project, dealing with solutions based on natural models. Here, it will be a pilot project on drought management. We are always pessimistic, as I’m ready to stop irrigation anytime.”

This fungus reduces the water bill of Nicolas. It also makes his oil exceptional and very popular. Because the fungus is forcing his trees to produce a lot more polyphenols. Thanks to these natural components, his oil is a true medicine.

“We have a “health claim”. This means we can write on our bottle that if you take one tablespoon a day, you will reduce your bad cholesterol, and increase the good cholesterol. It works if the olive oil contains more than 250 mg of polyphenols a liter. Our olive oil is 3 700 mg of polyphenols. So we are sixteen times above the limit to call it a medicine.”

“We don’t sell our olive oil like a classical one. It’s a lot more expensive and sold in pharmacies. Consumers, in Saudi Arabia and other countries, will buy it around 200 euros a liter.”
Despite the price, Nicolas Netien sold his entire 2016 production, that is 1 500 liters.

“We left Nicolas’ farm, and we are now in front of a training center in which he’s teaching his technics to Cypriot farmers.”
“From the beginning of our project, we wanted to change our community. Most of the farmers, living here, have debts, they don’t get any revenue. It’s a disaster. Seeing that, we thought the first answer was education. We planned to create a center, to give our sustainable development tools.”

“Are they sensitive to what you’re teaching? Isn’t there any reluctance for the oldest ones?”
“Of course there is. The oldest ones have their way of doing things. There’s always a reluctance. But, when we talk about production, and money, then we get a point. Our technics are much more profitable.”

“Plus, they are using much more water than you do, while it’s a limited resource.”
“Indeed, there is less and less water. Our country is more and more dry. We have faced much disasters. A lot of farms got bankrupt because their owners used saline water. We blame people for taking long-time showers. But it’s not even 5% of Cyprus total consumption. The agriculture is more than 80%. We need to change the agricultural sector. The rest is peanuts.”

The next few years will be harsher for the Cypriot farmers. According to a Cyprus Institute study, the country will face harder and larger droughts in the next thirty years.