By Michele Kambas
NICOSIA, June 30 (Reuters) - Parched Cyprus took its first delivery of water by ship from Greece on Monday to stave off a drought which has sapped water reserves to critically low levels and triggered emergency rationing.
A tanker containing some 40,000 cubic metres of drinking water -- more than double the quantity held in all of the Mediterranean island’s 17 main reservoirs -- anchored off Cyprus’s southern coast close to midnight (2200 GMT).
Its discharge into the island’s main water network was expected to commence later this week, contingent on the results of tests for its quality.
"We expect to bring in about 8 million cubic metres of water from Greece by November 15," said Michalis Ioannides, executive chairman of Ocean Tankers, the company contracted to transport the water.
Cyprus is suffering one of the worst droughts on record, triggering emergency rationing to households, expediting plans for desalination units and sending devout Christians into churches to pray for rain.
However the rationing kicked in only after March, despite growing signs from depleting water reserves that the situation was critical and fuelling fears that Cyprus, a major tourist destination, could not hold out past the summer.
The Spanish city of Barcelona was also forced to import water by ship this May, but Ioannides said the Cyprus project was unprecedented in its scale.
"We will be systematically importing water over a six month period and I don’t think it’s been done on this scale before," said Ioannides.
Authorities have warned that the imported water, costing the government some 40 million euros ($63.25 million), is not the solution to the island’s chronic water shortage.
Cyprus has one of the highest concentrations of reservoirs in the world, but they were only 7.2 percent full on Monday, containing 19.7 million cubic metres of water.
The island has two desalination plants running at full capacity and a third is to come on line this year.
However even that is not enough; state geologists have disclosed authorities were contemplating the purchase of giant drills able to penetrate depths of up to 800 metres, double the existing capacity, in their search for ground water. (Editing by Richard Williams)