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Friday 10th July 2020
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Down the slippery slope

Geological map of Cyprus
Source: Cyprus Geological Survey Department

THE GEOLOGY of Cyprus is unique and results from the natural forces responsible for its creation. Over millions of years, the island has been slowly squeezed out of the water as Africa has moved north, pushing against the European land mass by continental drift.

The natural forces that created the island left behind a legacy of riches. For Cyprus’ early inhabitants these included copper, from which the island got its name.

Construction issues

But the natural forces that created Cyprus also left behind a legacy of problems. The most notable of these is unstable land in which landslides are common. In Cyprus, landslides are usually triggered by heavy rainfall, earthquakes, erosion, and human activity. Anyone travelling the island should visit Pissouri, Kinousa or Polemi where they will see the damage resulting from houses built on landslides.

The Cyprus Geological Survey Department (GSD) has mapped vulnerable landslide areas in Paphos District and to a lesser extent, those in Limassol.

Problematic Paphos villages include Agios Photios and Statos, Choletria, Theletra, Episkopi, Marathounda and Armou. Following devastating landslips at Agios Photios and Statos, the Government moved both villages to a new location. Choetria & Theletra villages were also relocated after suffering similar disasters.

The GSD map shows bentonite and mélange landslides. These clays absorb huge amounts of water, expanding by as much as 15 times their original volume and shrinking back as they dry out. The extreme forces exerted as they expand and contract can wreak havoc to anything built on them. Deposits of bentonite and mélange can be found at many villages, including Simou, Drinia, Phiti, Milia, Anadiou, Lasa, Krittou, Marottou, Kannaviou, Melamiou, Ayios Dimitrianos, Nata and Fionikaria.

The Phiti case

A development of 9 villas with swimming pools is currently under construction in the Phiti area on a bentonite deposit and the threat is obvious. Landslides could be triggered by excavations and vibrations caused by heavy construction vehicles, alterations to the surface water flow caused by roads and other hard landscaping, large discharges of water from swimming pools, sewerage problems caused by the non-permiable nature of the soil, etc. These factors may impact on neighbouring areas, damaging buildings, and accelerating nearby active slides.

Clearly, anyone who allows themselves to be ‘duped’ into buying a property on this development, or any others built on unstable land is simply asking for trouble!

It’s raining

In 2006, heavy rain in Paphos triggered mud slides, which resulted in damage to property and the tragic loss of two lives. The authorities worked hard to put matters right. They improved and enlargened drains, and countoured and cleared ravines blocked by discarded rubbish.

Almost immediately, a developer infilled one of the cleared ravines and started building houses. What happens the next time there’s some heavy rain? Will these houses get washed away?

Heavy rains also caused problems at an Aristo development at Pissouri. One owner went to check that the contents of his garden shed were keeping dry. Seconds after returning to the house he heard a loud crash; a 20 foot reinforced concrete wall had collapsed, crushing his shed and filling his garden and swimming pool with mud, water and goat excrement. If he’d lingered a few seconds longer in his shed, he may well have been killed.

Planning law

Given Cyprus’ long experience of landslides and having to move whole villages to new locations, you would think that the law would prohibit the construction of property on unstable land. Unfortunately, this is not the case!

According to the GSD, engineers and geologists engaged by developers (and others) are responsible for ensuring the stability of any structure and its surrounding area. If problems arise, buyers must persue their case through the courts; landslide is a natural hazard and properties built in these areas are uninsurable.

A disaster waiting to happen

Older British expatriates will remember the Aberfan disaster of 1966. On October 21st, a tip of coal waste, undermined by water, engulfed the South Wales village of Aberfan killing 144 people, 116 of whom were children.

Let’s hope the powers that be have the courage to ban all construction on unsafe ground. Or perhaps they’re waiting for a tragedy like Aberfan to strike in Cyprus!

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