Southern Europe is not known for its endless rain nor its snowy winters. Instead, the land constantly experiences a long, dry summer, followed by intermittent rain during its winter season. This is the weather that creates the rolling fields of olive and fruit trees, green vegetables, and legumes which are hailed for their anti-oxidant properties and health benefits. These foods spurred the Mediterranean Diet, which as people who live in the Mediterranean will tell you, is a way of life. It has fostered the unique and popular history, culture, economy, environment, health and nutrition of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean. Southern Europe, however, also has some of the most over-cultivated soil in the history of the world – so how does southern Europe continue to provide enough water and nutrients to sustain human life? This is an especially important question since this diet is now under even more pressure than ever from climate change and growing populations.
How have these countries addressed the increasing pressures of water shortage in an ever-growing population? A group of agriculture experts from several Mediterranean countries came together yesterday to discuss the ways in which agricultural practices have evolved in southern Europe. The discussion was titled “Develop a Water Friendly Agriculture in Europe.” Panelists included: Pascal Ferey – President of the French Council for Agriculture, Environment Section; Léo Chovin of the Syndicat intercommunal d’irrigation du sud; José Pascual from the Euromediterranean Irrigators Community; Ipek Erzi from The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey; Alain Guillemin – Director General of Terrena; Dominique Sautre, a Farmer in the Vosges region; and Savvas Hadjineocleous from the Sewerage board of Nicosia.
Spain was used as a case study because it has evolved its agricultural practices to account for diminishing water supplies. Spain has consistent dry weather. Because of the scarcity of water and the great demand for it, local governments monitor the water output and distribute water to farmers very carefully. They distribute no more than the individual farmer needs. They do not use sprinklers because the air is too dry and much of the water dries before it hits the ground. They effectively act as water police.
Of course, any study on evolved water practices in the Mediterranean should always include Cyprus. As one of the few island nations in the Mediterranean, Cyprus suffers from the highest water stress in Europe. It’s constantly battling to provide sufficient water for growing needs because of periodic droughts. A popular tourist destination, Cyprus experiences its peak tourist season at the same time as its season of least rainfall. This is an issue because it experiences the highest demand for water during the lowest supply. Cyprus experiences such little rain that its dams lay far below peak capacity. As a result, Cyprus turned to a desalination project in the late 1990’s. According to Mr. Hadjineocleous, “It’s an energy intensive process, but it’s required for the stability of Cyprus.” Since then, Cyprus has constructed other water-producing plants as well. For example, Vathia Gonia, a sewage treatment plant in Nicosia, produces 20,000 cubic meters of water per year from wastewater. In total, Cyprus generates 20 million cubic meters of water per year from water treatment plants. This reclaimed water is then used for agriculture.
“We don’t talk enough about re-using wastewater in urban areas,” stated the moderator as he turned the audience’s attention to Ms. Erzi, the Turkish representative. Ms. Erzi explained that one of the main agricultural basins surrounds the city of Konya: This breadbasket gives Turkey the ability to be self-sustainable. Prior to any improvements, however, wastewater from the city of Konya was flowing into the salt lake in the north of the region. Since the city residents were using water from the local aquifer, there was a risk that this basin would run out of water and the region would only be left with a polluted lake. As a result, the government created the Konya waste water treatment plant which was designed to collect the wastewater before it was discharged into the salt lake. In order to make the water usable for agriculture, nitrates are removed. In an another example of resource reuse, phosphorus is not removed, since it is a necessary and scarce fertilizer.
This panel spurred some food for thought. For example: Should the recycled wastewater be returned to the farmers at no cost? Should the farmers receive a subsidy for using it? Should the citizens pay for the treatment of the wastewater but not receive the immediate benefit from it? Stay tuned because further sessions at the World Water Forum will address some of these questions.
How do you feel about the idea of using reclaimed wastewater in agriculture? Would you eat food grown with treated wastewater? Or perhaps most provocative of all – would you drink treated wastewater, as Singapore does?