The price of watering the greens
By Stefanos Evripidou
CYPRUS IS in the throes of a drought. The major reservoirs are down to one per cent capacity. The government is spending around €40 million to ship emergency water from Greece. And the current debate is whether to add 10 more water-guzzling golf courses to the four existing ones.
The issue of golf courses has been around for years but a closer look at its history reveals, at best, a sorry tale of government incompetence, at worst, state complicity with vested interests.
A 1992 study commissioned by the Cyprus Tourism Organisation (CTO) concluded that the introduction of golf courses in Cyprus would attract quality tourism. The study recommended between six and seven golf courses spread out across the island. It did not propose any fixed incentives (such as permits to build luxury hotels, villas and apartments in agricultural zones) but acknowledged that extra incentives might be required on a case-by-case basis.
Three golf courses were built in the 1990s: the family-owned Vikla Golf and Country Club in Limassol, Tsada Golf Club built by the Paphos Bishopric and Aristo Developers’ Secret Valley in Paphos. A fourth was finished in 2002, Aphrodite Hills, owned by the Lanitis Group. The latter is the only project to include a hotel and luxury villas built around the golf course.
After those four, interest in more courses pretty much dried up. In 2005, the Papadopoulos government decided Cyprus needed 14 golf courses. No new economic or environmental study had been commissioned since 1992, inviting criticism that “14” was based more on a hunch, and less on facts.
The government, with Georgios Lillikas as Commerce Minister, concluded that golf courses in themselves were not profitable. And so, to encourage their development, permits were given to build luxury villas and apartments around them. Ten new permits were given in total. Overnight, agricultural land bought at nominal value transformed into lucrative residential property.
A grass golf course requires, on average, between 600,000 and one million cubic metres of water a year to keep its fairways green. Fourteen golf courses require the same amount of water as a city of 150,000 residents, a little less than Limassol.
In 2005, a cabinet decision was taken setting out government policy on water supply. The policy clarified that water would not be taken from the existing water balance, nor from aquifers. In other words, no dams or boreholes. The fairways would either be watered using recycled (treated sewage) water or desalinated water. Desalination would be the responsibility of the owners.
However, to date, all existing golf courses have been using water from dams or boreholes. In 1993, the government signed a deal with a private business to supply water from Asprokremmos dam for the needs of the Aphrodite Hills. Until last year, that dam was supplying up to one million cubic metres of water a year to the golf course. This year, due to severe shortages, water is no longer taken from the dam but from boreholes enriched with recycled water by the State. The amount supplied to the golf course has also changed, reduced to 160,000 cubic metres.
Tsada also takes from boreholes in the same area. A fifth golf course near Tsada is almost near completion. The owner has requested water from the state and awaits the Agriculture Ministry’s reply. Vikla uses two boreholes but has stopped watering its fairways for the summer.
According to Principal Water Engineer at the Water Development Department (WWD), Sophoclis Aletraris, the owners of Secret Valley illegally built a dam around 15 years ago on the Ha-potami River to meet their water needs.
“It is illegal to build any structure on a river course. You need a permit from the Paphos District Officer, the WDD and the Land Survey Department. They don’t have any of those permits,” said Aletraris.
Asked if the owners were taken to task over the illegal dam, he replied: “I don’t know if anybody’s doing anything about it. It is under the authority of the District Officer to do something.”
A sixth golf course is also underway at Tersefanou, outside of Larnaca which aims to be ready by 2010. The owners plan to use a desalination plant to meet their water needs. How the water will get from the plant on the coast to the golf course has yet to be decided.
That leaves eight more golf courses to be built. An environmental impact study has already been carried out on a seventh in the Tserkez Tsiflik region, proposed by Lanitis Farm Ltd, while two studies have been carried out on golf course expansion and residential development of Secret Valley.
So, can Cyprus really cope with more? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? What is government policy: to promote more sporting facilities on the island or residential development?
“We don’t have the resources to satisfy demand from 14 golf courses. We appreciate the needs of tourism but we are concerned with the numbers. A more realistic figure could be four or five,” said Aletraris.
Last month, the CTO chief was asked in Parliament how Cyprus tourism had benefited so far from the existing golf courses and how it would benefit from 14. She was not in a position to answer since no study has been carried out on the matter.
“The new government is rethinking the policy. They are getting tougher and tougher, I even heard talk of ruling out use of recycled water which leaves only desalinated water for golf courses,” said Aletraris.
During the drought, farmers have suffered the most since they have had access to reservoir water cut off, leaving them to make do with private boreholes and treated sewage water.
However, with the aquifers almost depleted, boreholes are drying up, making recycled water a sought-after commodity. If treated water, much-needed by farmers, continues to go to golf courses, the government could soon expect to see farmers out on the streets with their tractors.
WWD Senior Water Engineer Vlassis Partassides said golf courses would most likely have to rely on desalinated water, which they’ll produce.
The Lanitis Group is already in the process of obtaining permits to build a desalination plant, after which the supply of public water should cease. When groundwater runs out for Tsada, they too will have to desalinate. Secret Valley, theoretically, could continue to use public water if they prove the project is of “common benefit”.
“I don’t think they can, so they too will have to desalinate,” said Partassides.
The WWD sent a memo to the government seeking a policy review on the number of courses. “We can’t justify 14 courses. Also, to have desalination, you need electricity, who will pay the penalties for pollution? It has to be the developer,” he said.
Another issue is who’s responsible for the golf courses and residential areas after they’ve been sold?
“The government needs guarantees that they won’t be abandoned. There are many grey areas in the 2005 cabinet decision. It doesn’t stipulate that the golf courses have to be built before the villas.
“They can build villas first, or build a golf course and then abandon it, leaving us to provide the water. The deal is the government would then take it over and run it. But the whole point of golf was that it’s not profitable which is why the villa incentives were given. This clause leaves the non-profitable business to the government. It’s senseless and absurd,” said Partassides.
A ministerial committee set up to look at the golf issue has already decided to suspend all acts to promote golf until September, when the government will look at the whole issue again in its entirety.
In the meantime, no new building or town planning permits will be given. As for the initial 14 golf permits, according to Partassides, the Attorney-general has stated the government is not legally bound by them.
Environment engineer, Michalis Loizides, has described the golf issue as “one of the biggest scandals seen in Cyprus”.
The former chair of the Cyprus Technical Chamber Environment Committee said three main concerns were raised.
“There is an ethical issue. The government is not allowed to give the natural resources of the country to one person to make so much profit without getting virtually anything out of it,” said Loizides.
“Second, how can we seek derogations from the EU on our carbon emissions for desalination plants when they are being used for golf?” he added.
And finally, areas singled out for potential golf development happen to neighbour or sit within protected areas under the Natura 2000 programme, like the one near Cape Greco.
“Golf courses consume a lot of energy, water, pesticides and herbicides. The kind of residents targeted for these complexes use around 500 litres of water per day. A Nicosia resident needs around 140 litres per day,” argued Loizides.
“Imagine the consumption of water. It’s an amazing scandal, I can’t believe it,” he said.