Drought-hit Cyprus starts emergency water rations

NICOSIA (Reuters) - Cyprus on Monday ordered emergency water rationing and imports from Greece to cope with a growing shortage exacerbated by a fourth year of drought.

A goat walks along the sun-baked bed of Cyprus's largest reservoir at Kouris, March 20, 2008. Cyprus announced on Monday emergency water cuts to deal with a crippling drought. REUTERS/Stringer

The east Mediterranean island faces an unprecedented water crisis which has seen reservoir reserves plunge dangerously low and desalination plants unable to cope with growing demand.

On Monday, the island’s reservoirs were 10.3 percent full. Rainfall has been minimal since 2003.

“Cuts are essential to cover the needs of the population,” said government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou. “This is an extremely grave situation.”

Authorities said they would cut water supplies to district distribution networks by 30 percent. They would also seek water imports from Greece, likely to occur in the next five months, Stefanou said.

The cut in water supplies means households will have running water for eight hours every two days to refill deposits.

Such measures have not been imposed since the 1970s and 1980s, when Cyprus was exclusively reliant on rainfall and underground water deposits for its needs.

Desalination introduced in the 1990s staved off rationing, but rising demand and dwindling rainfall has put pressure on scant resources.

Official accounts suggest rainfall in Cyprus has fallen by about 20 percent over the past 35 years, a decline experts attribute to climate change.

On Sunday and Monday, temperatures on the east Mediterranean island scaled some 14 degrees higher than normal to 34 degrees Celsius, (93.2 Fahrenheit) while the island was covered in thick clouds of dust billowing in from north Africa.

The Met Office described the scale of the rise in temperature as unprecedented for March. Temperatures were expected to fall by eight to 10 degrees on Tuesday.

Cyprus has two desalination plants running at full capacity, and a third is due to come on stream in June.

Editing by Mary Gabriel