The climate crisis in Cyprus
Avli co-founder Nik Michael on tackling climate change on a divided island
In September 2021, about 300 people gathered for a climate march in Nicosia, Cyprus. As part of the event, two activists donned papier-mâché masks representing Nicos Anastasiades, president of the Republic of Cyprus, and Ersin Tatar, the Turkish Cypriot leader. As they squabbled, a map of the island of Cyprus was skewered over a spit in a telling parody of souvla, the traditional grilled meat. The message? As Cyprus’s leaders continue to debate, the island is getting cooked.
Like much of the rest of the world, Cyprus has a lot to lose from climate change. As an arid island that is already hot and drought-prone, Cyprus faces the prospect of getting hotter and drier.
One group working to elevate the climate issue on the island is the Cypriot organization Avli, one of the organizations behind the September climate march. In Greek, the term “avli” refers to a courtyard or field. According to the organization’s website, the group is dedicated to providing “a space for all people who are interested in the future of Cyprus to contribute and discuss ideas for how we can transform [their] island.”
To find out more about the climate crisis in Cyprus, I spoke with Nik Michael, a former U.S. Fulbright fellow in Cyprus who helped found the Avli organization in 2020.
Addressing the climate crisis amidst de facto division
It goes without saying that Cyprus’s de facto division (read about that in my previous post on that history) makes responding to climate challenges that much harder—with two separate “administrations,” one internationally recognized and the other self-declared and unrecognized, collaboration is not easy, particularly when the leaders of both sides can’t agree on so much to begin with.
According to Nik Michael, the division is a stumbling block which all climate solutions must traverse.
“I think the grand organizing theory is that the division of Cyprus is not just a problem to be dealt with,” Michael said. “Along with the climate crisis, it is actually the thing preventing meaningful climate action.”
As an organization of about 40 members, Avli splits its efforts into three tasks: research, education, and advocacy. According to Michael, by researching climate trends and evaluating how effectively the Republic of Cyprus is meeting European Union climate goals and the targets set by other climate agreements, Avli can educate Cypriots on the challenges the island faces, and then advocate for policy changes to better respond to those issues.
And policy changes are probably necessary, because the coming scenario is dire.
Drought, heat, and fires: Cyprus on a warming planet
The long-term drought in Cyprus from the late 1990s to the late aughts was the region’s worst drought in 900 years. That’s right. The last horrific drought in Cyprus had happened when the Byzantine Empire still ruled the island, the Crusades continued to roil the Near East, the Song Dynasty presided over a golden age in China, and the Cahokia settlement of the Mississippian civilization was reaching its apex. It was a very long time ago.
In 2008 the drought was so bad the reservoirs in Cyprus ran dry. The north of Cyprus received water from Turkey, and the south of Cyprus received water from Greece—neither sustainable long-term solutions.
In an added complication, the cyclical nature of Eastern Mediterranean rainfall patterns throw a wrench in efforts at predicting one year’s conditions compared with the next.
After all, this past February 2022, the dams on the island overflowed thanks to an exceptional rainy season. Signs of such plenty, however, are a mirage.
“The biggest threats that Cyprus faces are drought and extreme heat,” Michael said. “Urban heat waves and fires are at the present moment, insane. We have reached the highest temperature that’s ever been reached in Cyprus two years in a row, the highest temperature that’s ever been reached in Cyprus—46 degrees Celsius [114 degrees Fahrenheit].”
Heat waves tend to be the deadliest form of natural disaster. According to Nik Michael’s climate report based on his Fulbright research published on the Avli website:
“In 2019 Nicosia had 12 days where the temperature was greater than 38˚C [100˚F]. By 2050, Nicosia could see about 24 of such days, a more than 100% increase. Cyprus will also experience an additional 30 warm “tropical” nights exceeding 25˚C [77˚ F] than it does currently. In 2019, Nicosia experienced 6 nights where the temperature was greater than or equal to 25˚C [77˚ F]. By 2050, Nicosia could see 36 such nights, or a 600% increase.”
As Michael iterated to me over the phone, you might be able to hide for a few hours during a hot day, but if it’s hot all night, there’s no chance of relief.
Just as fires have plagued the Western United States in recent years, so too have fires become a challenge in Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey. A fire near Limassol in July 2021 burned 21 square miles. The fires aren’t going to disappear anytime soon—and in Cyprus, carbon exploitation is ramping up.
The hydrocarbon conundrum
Despite all these warning signs of climate issues, Cyprus continues to be mired in the scramble for hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean. The battle for fossil fuels, even if resolved peacefully, promise the unleashing of even more carbon into the atmosphere.
Despite EU’s pro-renewable energy policy, the race to seize hydrocarbon assets in the Eastern Mediterranean has intensified. Countries such as Turkey, Greece, Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus have competing claims for offshore natural gas deposits in the Mediterranean Sea, which has led to naval standoffs between Greek and Turkish vessels—including a “mini-collision” between ships in 2020.
The Biden Administration’s 2022 withdrawal of support from the “EastMed” pipeline project, which would create a natural gas pipeline running from Israel to Cyprus and on to Greece (thereby bypassing Turkey), adds further intrigue to the situation. The EU’s potential break from Russian oil and gas due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine further complicates the issue.
In yet another cost of hydrocarbon exploitation in the region, in August 2021 an oil spill originating from the Baniyas refinery in Syria led to oil polluting Cyprus’ eastern shores, a sensitive habitat for the native sea turtle and seal populations.
“We are a climate group; we are interested in climate change,” Michael said. “We are interested in peace.” But everything is connected, Michael added. Avli has found that it needs to talk about all the issues that affect the island—peace, climate, geopolitics, justice, and equality—because all these topics are interrelated.
Despite the complex nature of the problems, Michael expressed optimism.
“A lot of it is that we don’t know our own history, and we have a lot of amazing organizing history. People power on this island really has pushed the envelope on a lot of important issues. This is a former colony that has managed to actually become a fairly high-income society. A lot of former colonies are doing a lot worse. That’s not an accident, and that’s not a gift from the British, or from the Ottoman Empire. That’s the result of organizing and our ability to unite along the lines that do matter to us.”
As for climate attitudes? To Michael, resignation is not the answer, for neither the Cyprus problem, nor the Cyprus climate problem.
“I just want to push back against that ‘doomerism’ in Cyprus, because it’s so easy to get caught up into it being like, oh, things will never change,” Michael said. “Change is quite possible and constant in Cyprus, and there’s no reason to believe that change isn’t possible in this realm.”
This is the fourteenth post in The Cyprus Files, a limited-run newsletter series from The Usonian chronicling my Fulbright experiences in Cyprus. You can read all the posts in The Cyprus Files here. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss a (free) dispatch from the island of Aphrodite!