With most households now having their water supplies reduced by a third to try to tackle the shortage, Cypriots can be forgiven for believing that this is the worst drought the island has ever experienced. Well, think again.

Cyprus has survived numerous much longer droughts. Some 1700 years ago, for example, the island had to be evacuated after nearly two decades without rainfall. Based on historical evidence, around 306 AD Cyprus was so badly affected by lack of water that the island was almost deserted. It was only when the drought finally ended that people were transported back to the country from the island of Tylos.

Archaeological evidence from all eras shows just how precious a commodity water has been to Cyprus down the ages. Water shortages are not a new phenomenon that has emerged due to the increase in climatological changes worldwide. The island has suffered regularly from droughts and water shortages, forcing its various occupants to find the most efficient ways to collect, store and convey water.

Ever since the Neolithic era (8500 BC), evident from the site of Choirokitia, the people used to build their settlements close to springs and rivers in order to have easy and continuous access to water. Archaeological findings from the first and middle Copper Age (2500-1600 BC), show special structures and installations, mostly earthen and stone conveyors, were constructed to collect and store rainwater. At the time, Engomi seems to have been a large and densely populated town. It was considered a good port as it was close to the mouth of the Pedieos river, which it is thought was navigable at the time.

During the period of Frankish and Venetian occupation (1192-1489 AD and 1489-1571 AD respectively) as the Cypriot towns were well fortified and surrounded by walls, the problem of the lack of drinking water was solved by systematic channelling and underground storage of rainwater. In order to eliminate loss of water during delivery, earthen conveyors and masonry underground channels were used. According to Chris Schabel, medieval historian at the University of Cyprus, there was pretty intensive and advanced technology for water use and storage on the island in the Middle Ages and until the Ottoman occupation.

"There were aqueducts, irrigation wheels, conveyors, water mills and a lot more sophisticated technology for the time. In the Middle Ages, Famagusta received its water from the Kythrea mountains. The cities on the coasts basically had to rely on aqueducts and did so for some time. Nicosia was pretty well supplied with water as well, especially for the population which was 25,000, a lot of people for the time" he said. "At the time, there was a great ground water supply. As long as the population remained low in the pre-industrial period, the water was sufficient for supplying cities which received water either from the mountains through the aqueducts or through the groundwater supply."

Despite the good supply of water for most of the period, Schabel said that droughts were any ever present worry in the Middle Ages. "There have been plenty of droughts throughout the history of Cyprus. Medieval droughts would probably mean agricultural difficulties that affected the normal grain farming" he said.

During the British colonial period (1878-1960 AD), the water problems were handled on a systematic basis. Among the issues British tried to address was that of town water supply and irrigation. In 1878, the Royal Cross of Engineers of the British Army repaired the existing irrigation works and during the colonial period, a number of geologists were sent from Britain to Cyprus to evaluate the water supplies on the island. Among them was the geologist R. Russel who concluded that the Mesaoria area constituted a good artesian watershed and proposed that deep boreholes be drilled, a plan that was rejected 15 years later by his colleague C. Reid. Reid proposed instead the drilling of boreholes in the Kokkinohoria and Morphou areas. On the basis of Reid's proposals some boreholes were drilled at a depth of 1000 feet.

The British policy of drilling boreholes throughout the island resulted in a serious depletion, due to excessive pumping of the groundwater reserves, in the main water bearing areas of Famagusta, Morphou and Akrotiri. It was calculated a few years ago that groundwater resources of Cyprus are over-pumped every year by 40 per cent over the allowable safe yield.

After the end of the British rule and until the Turkish invasion of 1974, the techno-economic studies for extensive water works were prepared and a number of dams were constructed, such as those of Pomos, Agia Marina, Argaka, Lefkara, Yermasoyia, Polemidia and Mavrokolymbos. At the same time, the needs for potable water supplies of the villages were satisfied when water was distributed directly to most households.

The problem of water supply was further aggravated by the Turkish invasion, however Environmental Commissioner Charalambos Theopemtou said that it is largely the major climate changes in the last 30 years that have had the greatest effect. "I have said this before and people have not taken me seriously, but an important characteristic to measure the impact of climate change in Cyprus can be seen by the amount of not only rainfall but also snowfall. In the 80s, up at Troodos there were easily two to three metres of snow, meaning that the summer came and there was still snow up the mountains," he said.

With snow in summer now a thing of the past, Cyprus is apparently facing a new chapter in its troubled history of water. Anybody fancy a few years in Tylos?

What visitors said:

Ali Bay (1806) - "Generally, Cyprus is lacking water. The mountains near Paphos and Episkopi provide plenty of water, but in the other parts of the island there are only some streams and torrents that have little or no water at all during summer. With a little effort, I think that enough water for the needs of the island could be drawn from the Paphos mountain...and judging from the ruins of the aqueducts that are found everywhere, even at the driest areas, I suspect that in ancient times there existed a general irrigation system."

Doctor Hume (1801) - "We went to Limassol in order to procure wood and water, the latter being obtained from a well with the method of a persian rotating wheel of bad fabrication, which is turned around by a donkey. The well was located at an isolated locality, west of the town, under the shadow of a variety of trees, including Palma Christi or castor oil bush (kourtounia) and Morus Alba (sycamore)."

Lawrence Durrell (in his book Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, first published in 1957, talking about the period of 1953-56) > "The water is so scarce in Cyprus that it is sold in parcels. You buy an hour here and an hour there from the owner of a spring. Water rights form part of property titles of citizens and are divided up on the death of the owner among his dependants. Families being what they are, it is common for a single spring to be owned by upwards of 30 people."