Beyond water security: asecuritisation and identity in Cyprus

Original Paper


Forty years after the division of Cyprus, the unstable political agenda still prevents a meaningful bi-communal discourse on the joint management of natural resources, especially water, a vital resource for all islanders. Until now, both communities have deployed unilateral, tactical methods to securitise the water discourse by linking it to high politics; yet, the situation remains deadlocked. Processes by which the water discourse in Cyprus acquired multiple meanings of securitisation over time and across different groups remains understudied, as does the concept of asecurity. We suggest moving water management in Cyprus into an asecuritisation realm, where decision-making processes are founded on a shared social identity with water acting as a unifying agent. Based on empirical findings from multiple methods employed dealing with social dilemmas involving scarce natural resources, we conclude that an alternative way of organizing political space with no a priori reference to the securitisation logic would create new opportunities for transforming the discourse beyond the political lock-in and incorporating bi-communal dynamics into natural resource management, laying the groundwork for future cooperation on other emblematic issues.


Cyprus Water scarcity Water securitisation Asecuritisation Identity 



British bases


Common pool resources


North Cyprus


Republic of Cyprus


United Nations Buffer Zone

1 Introduction

The bifurcation of water security literature supports the notion that water functions both as a conflict instigator and/or as a unifier. The first assumes that competing interests over a finite quantity of resources leads to unavoidable conflicts, varying from public protest to actual armed engagement (cf. Ohlsson 2000; Homer-Dixon and Blitt 1998; Homer-Dixon 1994; Gleick 1993). The second strand of literature (cf. Hagmann 2005; Allan 1998; Dowdeswell 1998; Wolf 1998) argues that such struggles usually lead to beneficial arrangements, promoting cooperation and peace building. Summarising this literature, we acknowledge that water is a natural resource able to make good relations bad and bad relations worse. However, it can also promote cooperation between communities with mutually beneficial results.

Therefore, it is relevant to reflect upon how the concept of scarcity and safeguarding access to a scant resource is reflected across different groups, and how it acquires multiple meanings over time, especially as a security issue (Fischhendler 2015).

The act of securitising a vital, strategic resource, such as water, may promote insecurity between states by fostering distrust, or even instigating violence and possible conflict. Securitisation inherently bears negative attributes, while also being susceptible to changing significances in dynamic contexts (Roe 2012; Aradau 2004). On the other hand, water scarcity might foster successful negotiations and cooperation between parties in opposition, thus becoming the vehicle to return a securitised discourse to the realm of normal politics, in other words desecuritising the resource (Coskun 2009). Alternatively, the idea of asecurity entails organizing political space in a way that belies the territorial logic of statehood, undermining any application of securitisation logic that takes the state as its point of reference (Albert 1998; Joenniemi 1997).

In this article, resource scarcity is understood as a relative concept, a social construct (Aguilera-Klink et al. 2000). In other words, scarcity is determined by social processes that aim to reconcile biophysical limitations with institution-based systems of governance allocating rights to access and use of the resource (Kallis 2008; Vatn 2005).

We address this understanding of water scarcity in the context of Cyprus, which consists of the Republic of Cyprus (RoC), North Cyprus (NC), the United Nations Buffer Zone (UNBZ) and the British Bases (BB). Due to political instability, different strategies aiming to secure each population’s respective water supply have been unilaterally developed. Millions of Euros have been spent both in the north and south on Pharaonic water infrastructure upgrades. This unprecedented investment has temporarily addressed the extreme and persistent water scarcity phenomena. Yet, the division of the island into four entities with little interaction, sharing an insular, interdependent socio-ecological system poses challenges to its water governance and exacerbates the existing vulnerability.

The focus of this paper is not to include water in the already polarized securitisation discourses, nor to advocate the desecuritisation of the resource. We assert that water availability constitutes a framing condition for security concerns that go beyond human drawn borders in an insular environment such as Cyprus. Thus, as water scarcity poses a threat to the socio-ecological system of the island and all Cypriots, this paper questions whether there is a prospect to transform the discourse surrounding security issues and move to an asecuritised arena.

Section 2 reviews the relevant literature while Sect. 3 describes the research methodology. Section 4 introduces the socio-ecological system and describes cases involving water management from which lessons on water security can be drawn. Section 5 explores the possibility of moving towards water asecuritisation in Cyprus. The concluding section summarizes the discussion and the advantages of placing water in the realm of asecurity.

2 Securitisation, desecuritisation and asecuritisation

Water security is included within the larger conceptual realm of security studies, which prompts an examination of the theoretical underpinnings of the water-security nexus itself. The inherent ambiguity in the broader field has necessitated a defence of the benefits of viewing the management of transboundary water bodies through a security lens (Dinar 2002), in part by calling for the formalization of a research agenda to determine what these benefits are (Mustafa 2007). While the political nature of water access and availability, and its link to riparian power imbalances have generally been accepted, the security implications of water scarcity are not necessarily assumed (Zeitoun and Warner 2006). Yet, the intuitive idea of a linkage between scarcity and security persists, despite the emphasis placed on the role of discursive practices in the process of securitising a referent object, whether material or immaterial (Homer-Dixon and Blitt 1998).

Invoking securitisation often legitimizes exceptional measures, including war, to mitigate an existential threat (Balzacq 2005), breaks the rules of normal politics (Buzan et al. 1998) and places issues beyond public debate (Schmitt 1985; Williams 2003). The act of securitisation can take different forms: tactical methods securitising the water discourse by linking it to high politics, infrastructural arrangements safeguarding access to resources through building and development, institutional constructs seeking to create organizational bulwarks for the same purpose, and linguistic tools imparting a sense of urgency and importance to these endeavours through the construction of alarmist narratives (Fischhendler 2015). Each form of securitisation is evident in the case of Cyprus, as discussed in Sect. 4.

It follows that desecuritisation is an attempt to bring securitised issues back into the realm of normal politics by rendering the perceived threats obsolete, whether existential or immediate. As a result, the negative spiral of securitisation is halted (Floyd 2008). Although specificities regarding this process remain unclear, it is argued that desecuritisation allows for greater debate and deliberation as part of a democratic process compared to the silence and speed that characterize the handling of security matters (Roe 2004, 2012). Increased dialogue can create better alternatives for decision-makers to choose from when it comes to issues like water management (Floyd 2008). Organizing political space to accommodate this discussion may also engender greater understanding of the underlying beliefs that play an important role in any securitisation process. Albert (1998) argues that an issue becomes securitized if it is perceived as an existential threat; this implies that a society can desecuritise an issue once it ceases to be perceived as a threat. Therefore, understanding the beliefs embedded in and the values related to security concerns invoked in water conflicts is critical (Dinar 2002).

Asecuritisation involves placing issues of vital or strategic importance on a distinct and alternative track to de/securitization, beyond a sphere where a priori references to security frame decision-making. Ensuring that an issue remains outside the realm of securitisation, or nonsecuritisation, is also akin to this concept (Roe 2004). Asecuritisation (Joenniemi 1997) denies the securitisation logic of safeguarding a resource within the territorial borders of nation states. Regions are understood to be functional agglomerations, where political space overrides all logic related to a state and state security (ibid). Albert (1998) distinguishes a newly emerged asecuritised system in the sense that its properties no longer carry meaning within the security-insecurity scale of the preceding system. New possibilities will emerge from this political space; there will still be a new security-logic in the emerging system, but an entirely different one, taking as its point of reference different concerns than before. This can be better understood if we understand the Europanisation process as a form of asecuritisation. Security concerns surrounding energy, for instance, still exist, but the political space encompasses broader issues of regional importance that extend well beyond the individual interests of the member states.

Therefore, a functional agglomeration can also be understood as a socio-ecological system, defined as a complex and adaptive system consisting of two interactive sub-systems (the bio-physical and the social) that are regulated by institutions (Costanza et al. 2001). In line with Albert (1998) we argue that the concept of asecurity does not necessarily deny any securitisation logic. Instead, it transcends political boundaries and takes a given socio-ecological system as its point of reference. This constitutes the new arena where different concerns take shape based on the logic applied. This might be a difficult approach to follow in regions with unstable territorial borders, indistinct bio-physical systems, very complex political interactions, and generally fluid systems. However, insular environments, like islands and isolated mountainous areas or valleys, offer a clearly defined, laboratory-like environment in which a socio-ecological system can be examined fairly easily, along with existential threats to the system as a whole.

Using Cyprus as a case study, this paper contributes to the water security literature by examining under what conditions an asecuritised water discourse may emerge. Our research inquiry is framed by the question of identity in Cyprus, using the socio-ecological system as our point of reference, rather than the state or nation as is typical in security studies.

3 Methods

This paper uses empirical material gathered between 2008 and 2012 under the auspices of several projects (Appendix 1). The research was grounded in state-of-the-art knowledge in institutional economics (Bromley 2006; Vatn 2005) and common pool resource (CPR) management (Ostrom et al. 1994). CPR games as originally developed by Cardenas et al. (2013) and modified by Zikos et al. (2010) were employed, as were additional research methods associated with this theoretical area. We gathered information on how Cypriots deal with social dilemmas involving scarce natural resources, how they craft rules, and especially the role of trust between users. In total 100 questionnaires (50 in RoC and 50 in NC) were filled out during post-experimental surveys (Appendix 2). Open-ended semi-structured and unstructured interviews and round tables were conducted as part of our Participatory Action Research approach (Reason and Bradbury 2001). The interviews were built on six axes: (i) on the actual and prospective condition of the water resource, (ii) on relevant experiences with it, (iii) on drivers and impacts of present water scarcity, (iv) on possible solutions, (v) on possibilities of cooperation between NC and RoC, and (vi) on conflicts within and between different user groups (e.g. tourism vs. agriculture). Furthermore, a meticulous review of English, Greek and Turkish-language media, research, and policy documents related to water development and governance (several of which are referenced throughout the article) engendered an understanding of water’s political significance in Cyprus. Moreover, we also simultaneously deployed a wide range of methods ranging from water metabolism analysis and participatory mapping, to land-use analysis and Geographic Information Systems in order to investigate possible collaborative scenarios, and factors that can foster collaboration over competition and contribute to the ongoing political negotiations. Parts of this body of research that focused on related research questions and targeted specific data sets have been published in various forms (cf. Zikos and Sorman 2013; ShareWaterCyprus 2012; Zikos and Roggero 2012; Lau 2012).

The employed methodologies allowed us to investigate the manifestation of a shared identity as an opportunity to transcend chronic debates based around securitisation, and move into an asecure domain that opens up further options for achieving tangible collaborative scenarios.

4 The socio-political and environmental context

4.1 The socio-ecological system

Due to its insular nature, Cyprus depends on its limited internal resources, mostly groundwater (Nachmani 2000). With island-wide water institutions and integrated water management impossible due to the division of political and administrative entities (Zikos and Roggero 2012) efforts to capture surface water and exploit groundwater resources have aggravated salt-water intrusion and overall water stress (Nachmani 2000; Elkiran and Ergil 2006).

In terms of water demand, agriculture consumes the greatest quantity of any sector in both NC and RoC (Savvides et al. 2001; SPO 2007). RoC has implemented water conservation mechanisms through agricultural modernization. Still, RoC has high water exploitation (index over 40 %) and is a water-stressed EU country (EEA 2007). Agriculture in NC uses 70 % of the total water supply (SPO 2007); the total water abstraction for 2001 was significantly less than the average recorded in the south (Elkiran and Ergil 2006). Despite the smaller population in the north, the water supply has become a limiting factor to growth and development. While the economic impact of tourism is well documented, accounting for more than 10 % of RoC’s GDP (EEA 2007), the true costs of tourism in terms of water usage have not been ascertained (Savvides et al. 2001). The extreme water shortages in the last decade were brought on by high levels of demand, particularly in the tourism sector during the summer months, as well as environmental and climatic factors (EEA 2007).

The British Bases (BB) and the United Nations Buffer Zone (UNBZ) are unknown variables in the overall picture of water management. The BB and UNBZ have traditionally been excluded from all reports and studies on Cyprus; this has resulted in an almost total lack of knowledge about water-related data, consumption patterns and management schemes there. In recent years, the BB and UNBZ have periodically been the subject of protests due to environmental concerns as Cypriots view the military bases with constant suspicion1 with regard to the environmental well-being of the island (The Guardian 2008; Theofanous and Tirkedes 2007).

The administrative division of the island (Fig. 1) discourages sustainable water management, making the emergence of collaborative water institutions particularly difficult despite their recognised importance by water users (Zikos and Roggero 2012).
Fig. 1

The four self-administrative entities and the groundwater bodies of Cyprus. The boundaries of the shared aquifers CY_1 and CY_17 are bolded (Source: Zikos and Roggero 2012)

Such division results in unilateral strategies and infrastructural solutions. Seawater desalination and importing water from Greece have been championed as part of the solution to the water problem in RoC (Reuters 2008) and in NC an undersea pipeline project is underway to import water from Turkey. This misses the socially constructed nature of scarcity, its relation to conflicts (Ohlsson 2000; Homer-Dixon 1994) and the institutional aspects of potential solutions (Vatn 2005). Leadership continues to sidestep the insularity of Cyprus and the potential for bi-communal cooperation around water. Rather, each community pursues its target goal for adequate water provisions unilaterally, relying on technological solutions or patrons (Zikos and Roggero 2012) to help them project an image of self-sufficiency.

4.2 The chimera of self-sufficiency

Water problems in RoC and NC have been temporarily addressed through non-cooperative, unilateral solutions, but these created undesirable side-effects. The proposed pipeline project to NC highlights the problematic nature of such solutions. This project brings water from the new Alakopru Dam in Turkey to a reservoir behind the Gecitkoy Dam in the area near Kyrenia/Girne. It is promoted as the project of the century (State Hydraulic Works 2011) and a major success story (State Hydraulic Works 2013). However, transparency and participatory processes in the decision-making and implementation phases were limited (Guven 2013). Moreover, Turkey has already started facing donor-basin problems related to the socio-ecological impacts of the Alakopru Dam, demonstrating that infrastructural solutions may merely shift the costs of water scarcity and provide a temporary fix to the problem (The New York Times 2013). Interviewees in NC cited ecological destruction in the Gecitkoy Dam area as a major concern. Furthermore, the experimental nature of the pipeline project, as the first submerged pipeline of this magnitude, makes its overall success questionable. Interviewees from both NC and RoC expressed fears that such a project increases the water and financial dependency of NC on Turkey, reinforcing the latter’s political influence.

In RoC, desalination has provided a loophole for the government. Although such technologies appear promising, their costly impacts (e.g. brine pollution) and inputs (e.g. high energy demand) make them unsustainable (Meerganz von Medeazza 2005). Although 4 % of the total energy demand in RoC currently goes into desalination processes, interviewees argue that this number could increase up to 40 %. Reliance on desalination technology could create a new oil for water scenario. The inherent risk involved was tragically demonstrated when an explosion of stored ammunition at a naval base destroyed the major power plant of the Republic on July 11, 2011, knocking out half the country’s power supply and resulting in desalination plants working at a third of their capacity during the driest month of the year (Evripidou 2011). For a short period, RoC felt assured of its ability to produce enough water to meet demand. But amidst the financial crisis, RoC has reduced its budget allocations for desalination plants. As a result, plants were operating at reduced efficiency in summer 2014 (CYToday 2014). In combination with decreased precipitation, RoC faces the threat of water rationing again, for both domestic and agricultural use (ibid).

As a result of the highly politicized agenda on the island, water scarcity appears only as part of a wider political debate (TurkishNY 2008). Water is approached in a fragmented way by each community, with the support of Greece and Turkey respectively (Hurriyet 2008; Simerini 2012). Any modification of the socio-ecological system (the construction of a dam for instance) may exert a direct or indirect impact on the island (Rep. Cyprus 2005). However, no coordinated action has been taken to date to avert such a negative impact on the whole system by setting up island-wide institutions. But is cooperation possible in the socio-ecological and political setting of Cyprus? If doomed to fail would this necessarily lead to security threats?

4.3 Identifying the triggers within the securitisation dialogue

There are different interpretations of what securitisation may entail in Cyprus. The island constitutes a complex setting where, until now, water securitisation has been used as justification for water development in the north and the south. Each side has employed tactical methods to securitise the water discourse by linking it to high politics in selective cases. Different mechanisms and structural responses justifying diverse security implications in Cyprus can be illustrated as follows based on different securitisation constructs (Fischhendler 2015).

Infrastructural constructs of securitisation have been and are being deployed in the cases of Pharaonic water investments via water development projects, such as desalination plants in the south and an undersea pipeline from Turkey in the north. Moreover linguistic mechanisms of the securitisation jargon are commonly used to project a sense of urgency and necessity onto these projects, pressuring their execution and overall implementation. For example, the pipeline project may have been construed as an urgent need since its construction began in the same year that the contract for a new seawater desalination plant in NC was terminated by the European Commission (New York Times2013).

Simultaneously, institutional attributes lead to different water security constructs within the divided island. For example, in the south, water securitisation was based mainly on the development of conveyance infrastructures under the motto “No drop of water to the sea” (MEDIS 2004) which afterwards gave way to desalinisation policies. In the north groundwater has been the predominant water supply source. The distinctive underlying motives as expressed through such constructs have led to the creation of certain foundational gaps for setting a common water discourse.

The political complexities make it harder to grasp how the problems and purported solutions to water scarcity have been socially constructed to serve specific political agendas. It is certain, however, that the types of securitisation mechanisms used in response to different triggers have changed over time, as actors have adapted to shifting realities based on variables such as climate patterns, technological progress, and political developments (Fischhendler and Nathan 2014).

4.4 From security triggers to opportunities for cooperation

Unilateral solutions have shown how securitisation indicators have been manifested in Cyprus through projects, policies, and media coverage. We now examine examples of how water can act as a unifying agent in decision-making when a shared social identity is recognised. This diminishes the conceptualisation of territorial statehood and securitisation logic, creating new opportunities for cooperative scenarios.

4.4.1 The village of Pyla/Pile

The mixed village of Pyla/Pile serves as a unique example where bi-communal water cooperation was advanced as the preferred solution, rather than continuing or enhanced institutional support. The Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities (including both Christians and Muslims) have lived there together for a nearly uninterrupted period of time. The UN has administrative control of the village because it is located in the buffer zone, but in practice the inhabitants manage their own affairs. In this context, the Cypriots faced the problem of expensive potable water from desalination plants in RoC. Based on the Cypriot constitution of 1960 the UN expected each respective community to collect water fees, and then forward the payment to the joint authorities. As such joint bodies no longer exist, RoC subsidises these costs for the Turkish-Cypriot community indirectly recognising that this obligation cannot be fulfilled. Unsatisfied with this situation, the village developed its own bi-communal plan to become autonomous in terms of supply. The plan called for the communities to share the cost of financing new water infrastructure on land located in NC that belonged to Turkish-Cypriot villagers, in order for them to meet water demand without external aid and solve the payment problem. However, the NC officials objected to this plan on the grounds that water from the north would be used by Greek-Cypriots. Rather than entering into negotiations, RoC officials suggested cancelling the plan, as they were willing to continue subsidising water supplied from the south. The UN administration remained neutral. In this case, political interests were given greater priority by the administrative entities than community interests and natural/environmental attributes, and bi-communal dynamics at the local level were ignored.

4.4.2 The water system of Nicosia

The construction of the bi-communal sewerage system of Nicosia, which began operating in 1980, serves as the single exception to the gradual separation over time of water networks in the divided capital by providing wastewater treatment for both communities (Charalambous et al. 2011). Under the auspices of the United Nations Development Programme, municipal authorities for both communities found a way to move forward with the project, which began construction in 1972 (UNHCR 1996). Upgrades have been carried out since then, including the construction of a modern wastewater treatment plant at Mia Milia/Haspolat that became operational in 2013. The sewerage system seems to have been achieved only due to its lack of political significance and the practical necessity of the project (ibid). Given this lack of politicisation, it is unsurprising that project partners have highlighted lessons learned from the project concerning post-conflict peace-building, rather than its implications for water security (ibid). Yet, the ongoing management of the system and subsequent development of the new wastewater plant offers key insights into the current challenges of fostering bi-communal cooperation. Dedicated individuals from both communities have played integral roles in the sewerage project from its outset (ibid). However, the wastewater plant project still faces an obstacle to its sustainability, and to the overall functionality of the urban sewerage system. While the consortium awarded the contract for the project will also operate the plant for 10 years, a joint entity to manage the enterprise in perpetuity, as well as an agreement for reuse of treated wastewater and sludge produced at the plant are needed (Water Technology 2010; Business and Strategies Europe Consortium 2013; European Court of Auditors 2012).

Setting up a joint entity to manage the facility and distribution of treated wastewater may be difficult. Significant progress in bi-communal water sharing in Nicosia has failed to occur over the last forty years, although the municipal water authorities continue to cooperate. Today, the Water Board of Nicosia sends only a small amount of water (about 1.5 million m3) from RoC to the other side of the city on an annual basis (Charalambous et al. 2011). In addition, the north sends a similar amount of brackish groundwater to the south, which is treated by the Water Board and then distributed to the north. Although parts of the supply system serve both sides of the city, for now the two systems remain largely separated in terms of supply sources, billing and distribution (ibid). According to interviewees, since long before the opening of the borders individuals from the water utilities of the two parts had been in regular, although informal, contact to exchange information and coordinate activities. However, the lack of a legal framework for development assistance to the north, coupled with the inability of planners to take into account future assistance from, or complementary infrastructural works by, Turkey complicates medium and long-term planning for water development in NC (Business and Strategies Europe Consortium 2013).

4.5 The role of Cypriot identity and some first lessons

These two cases highlight possibilities of bi-communal cooperation beyond typical security concerns and the importance of the potential role that a shared Cypriot identity might play in water governance. Despite any differences, the two societies have a similar standing in terms of cultural wealth, traditions and customs, given a common historical heritage and background (Hassabi et al. 2003; Zikos and Roggero 2012). However tensions between the two communities have developed and both societies have come to see each another as competitors. Having a nationalist ideology deeply rooted in their mindsets and lacking a shared identity has pushed both communities to rely on post-colonial patronage structures (Zikos and Roggero 2012). The lack of a Cypriot identity poses constraints to future political solutions (Tzermias 1994). However, in spite of the deadlock of the reunification plan in 2004, the political environment looks quite promising. The opening of the borders in 2003 ended the mutual isolation and gave birth to growing interaction between the two communities. Jointly addressing the common problem of water scarcity, something that already constitutes common sense for many (Zikos and Roggero 2012) could create new space for interaction with beneficial results, supporting the emergence of a shared social identity.

Sirin (2012) argues that even in the presence of adversarial ethnic ties, decision-makers who have a shared identity are more likely to employ collective strategies and seek win–win solutions based on mutual interests. Her analysis of the 1959 negotiations between Turkey, Greece, Britain, and the Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities finds that Cypriots lacking a shared social identity were more prone than the other negotiating members to employ self-serving decision strategies and seek zero-sum negotiation outcomes that exclusively benefit their respective community. It is plausible that the different degrees of cooperation achieved both in Pyla/Pile and in the case of Nicosia, occurred precisely due to an emerging shared social identity, further supporting claims that some factors that could further contribute towards this direction are already in place (Riegl 2008).

Such evidence hints at an emerging transformative process with distinct narratives based on asecuritisation in which shared values are supported. Based on our Pyla/Pile and Nicosia cases we can deduce a few tentative lessons. Acknowledging the strategic value of bi-communal water projects like the sewerage system in Nicosia could open the door to further cooperative strategies for water management. However, failure to institutionalise water sharing poses the question of whether any real success can be achieved without formal bi-communal support. If Pyla is seen as a microcosm of the two communities, we can observe a joint effort to achieve self-sufficiency and decrease the dependencies on external actors. The constraints posed by the reality on the ground, if the village is considered as a socio-ecological subsystem, made cooperation the only real alternative to achieve a functional and equitable solution. In both cases, progress was possible as long as water remained an apolitical issue. Once it was politicised, however, serious problems appeared. Moreover, although security concerns were not explicitly invoked, they were strongly implied. In the case of Pyla, the refusal of NC leaders to allow the construction of shared water infrastructure that would benefit Greek Cypriots in its territory, RoC’s preference for maintaining the status quo for the water supply, and the UN’s reluctance to interfere, all relate to security concerns. In Nicosia, security is an issue as far as any active role that Turkey plays in NC’s local affairs is concerned. Security concerns have limited the success of these projects. Water provided the spark for these unique examples of cooperation, but they progressed because the socio-ecological system was viewed as a functional agglomeration, and water retained a non-securitised character.

5 Towards water asecuritisation in Cyprus

It is imperative to address water scarcity in terms of its impact on security. Although water has been securitised in Cyprus, it has weak capabilities for agenda-setting in the bi-communal negotiations to end the conflict, and has been given low priority in the past. However, our understanding of security goes beyond the narrow definitions of state or water security to include sectoral sustainability, resource allocation, economic development and political autonomy, affecting, directly or not, human security. Moreover, issues of societal security that are perceived to constitute existential threats to the identity of a society need to be accounted for in any relevant debate (Albert 1998).

The limitations of the securitisation approach are also evident, as it may obscure the need to develop a bi-communal water management strategy. In other words, conceiving of water as a vital resource that needs to be safeguarded against an external threat restricts options for sustainable management such as integrated water resource management, co-financing of projects, and island-wide water institutions. Furthermore, it may also reinforce reliance on the patron powers of Greece and Turkey (Zikos and Roggero 2012). Our cases have demonstrated as much, and the unilateral strategies of RoC and NC in this regard support the same conclusion.

The complex interplay of actors and political issues involved in Cypriot governance suggests that securitised issues are subject to change, making it difficult to develop stable policies and programmes. Therefore, a securitisation-based approach is likely to keep the situation on tenterhooks by reinforcing securitised discourses, without achieving meaningful progress in water management. Research has shown that water management in Cyprus based on human-drawn borders, rather than guided by questions of collaborative water institutions addressing the bio-physical characteristics of the island, has proven unsuccessful over the past 40 years (Zikos and Roggero 2012). In contrast, an identity-based approach constitutes a fundamentally different way of organising political space in Cyprus. Findings from several research projects (Appendix 1) identify prevailing perceptions of water scarcity as an existential threat to Cypriot identity, despite the fluidity of this identity itself.

Advocating for desecuritisation of water would only partially address the limitations above. Any redistribution of power that a desecuritisation paradigm would entail also involves the risk of increasing tensions, which is sobering considered in the context of Cyprus, where the conflict extends to the political-military sphere (Zeitoun and Warner 2006). The notion of asecurity (Joenniemi 1997) is particularly relevant to Cyprus. Cypriots, despite differing patterns of development on the island, still share a fragile island ecosystem in which natural resource management has largely been conscripted by political boundaries. Moreover, the perceived existential threat shared by Cypriots, combined with media silence on water may prove advantageous in a sense. We argue that in a setting like Cyprus, where water is not highly politicised depending on the context, water management can be moved into the asecurity realm fairly easily. Transitional steps have clearly been observed in the several cases as described above. It is seen that RoC and NC utilise unilateral water strategies based on securitisation constructs - tactical, institutional, infrastructural and linguistic. The case of Pyla demonstrates that voluntary will to achieve a bi-communal management scheme will eventually reach an impasse if the issue of water becomes politicised by those higher-up. The Nicosia sewerage system has served as a critical example of successful bi-communal cooperation to manage joint infrastructure. However, it remains to be seen if this cooperation will hold up against new challenges that may attempt to politicise, and even securitise, the newly improved system.

As such, water could help mediate such a transformative process, creating a common platform to address the dominant political challenges in an indirect way (ShareWaterCyprus 2012). There is an almost identical understanding of water scarcity as the most important existential threat for all Cypriots, justifying the importance of island-wide institutions regulating its use and offering alternatives to the status quo (Zikos and Roggero 2012).

6 Conclusions

This paper situates water within the larger debate over the a/de/securitisation of the resource in order to examine the implications in the context of Cyprus.

We argue that existing tensions on the political level related to water resources may escalate into conflict if the securitisation paradigm persists. On the other hand, desecuritising the resource might underplay the role of water as an element of societal security and an agent for fostering cooperation. The possibility of the option space can be enhanced through seeking an asecure roadmap that would ultimately foster intercommunal collaboration, and play a determining role in negotiations and decision-making on water management. This argument can be supported by incremental achievements as highlighted in the cases. Unilateral solutions employed by the north and south have reinforced the securitised framework for water management, using various mechanisms. The case of Pyla showed that bi-communal will for voluntary schemes exists; yet local plans were deadlocked in political debates. Ultimately, the case of Nicosia shows what may be possible when an asecure roadmap is followed. When viewed as a common cause, despite the lack of common institutional settings, bi-communal schemes can be realised.

Departing from existing definitions of asecurity, we contend that taking the insular socio-ecological system as the referent object to be secured would achieve this objective. With equal emphasis placed on the social subsystem as the bio-physical subsystem, a shared Cypriot identity would fall under the umbrella of securitisation. However, truly treating identity as a strategic and valued pillar in water planning and development would necessitate open debate amongst all the parties involved, aligning this issue with the normal realm of politics. If viewed from such a perspective, an entirely new logic on what water security means and what is considered a threat can be constructed.

We argue that any progress in water management should seek to achieve a common solution treating water scarcity as an existential threat for the security of all islanders, rather than ignoring the existence of the other half, or securitising water for one community—a futile attempt due to physical constraints—ultimately achieving no solution at all. Mechanisms for doing so would involve joint acknowledgement of the common water scarcity problem, taking the insular socio-ecological system as point of reference. This entails the asecuritisation of water, which would allow needs evolved around an emerging shared social identity to play a dominant role in decision-making. Evidently, more work, including at the theoretical level, is necessary to determine how to bring about this transformation of the current discourse, and whether such a process would have a positive impact on both peace-building in Cyprus and other securitised issues on the negotiation agenda.

Although our findings do not allow for generalisations, we conclude that current and future generations with insular socio-ecological settings like island-nations, island regions of a larger country, and isolated valleys and mountainous regions, will need to adapt to common resource scarcities, rather than continue to base crucial decisions for the future on long-standing problems embedded in traditional understandings of national or state security. The securitisation concept promotes a rather divisionary approach to scarcity, while desecuritisation tends to downplay a very real existential threat. We posit that the asecuritisation of a critical resource such as water can lay the foundation for increased cooperation between rival communities. In insular settings, where the importance of physical boundaries can easily be conceived of, identification of perceived threats that unite instead of divide, is the first step toward the asecurity realm. In this arena, actions taken based on issues corresponding to these perceptions should be regarded as having a potentially transformative power of discourse. Ultimately, such acts would lead towards the common betterment and joint advancement of communities perceived as rivals, according to their long-held beliefs, by challenging deeply rooted perceptions that have isolated people in the past.


  1. 1.

    It is worth noting that in many interviews, conducted by the authors during periods of drought, British military was blamed as the main responsible for the water scarcity. The exact argumentation largely varied, but there was a general suggestion that droughts are artificial, caused by the military, aiming at forcing Cypriots leaving the island so it can be used entirely as a military base. This view was held even by highly educated people, like academics, researchers and water experts.



We would like to acknowledge the support of the EU projects ENTITLE (European Network of Political Ecology) and GoverNat (Multi-level Governance of Natural Resources: Tools and Processes for Water and Biodiversity Governance in Europe), PRIO (The Peace Research Institute–Cyprus Center) and AGAUR (The Catalan Agency for the Management and Support of University Research under the International Catalan Institute for Peace) for their funding during the research; the people of Alakoy, Bellapais and Panagia for their enthusiasm and participation, Ayşe Salkım, Sertaç Sonan, Gönül Şorman, Petros and Androulla Papasozomenou for the local support. Finally we would like to thank our project team: Felix Rauschmayer, Mario Giampietro, Zora Kovacic, Ana Catarina Luz, Cristina Madrid-López, Jaime Paneque-Gálvez and Ourania Papasozomenou.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dimitrios Zikos
    • 1
  • Alevgul H. Sorman
    • 2
  • Marisa Lau
    • 3
  1. 1.Division of Resource Economics, Institute of Agricultural EconomicsHumboldt University of BerlinBerlinGermany
  2. 2.Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA)Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB)BarcelonaSpain
  3. 3.Science and Technology in Archaeology Research CenterThe Cyprus InstituteNicosiaCyprus

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