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Are the authorities waiting for a tragedy like Aberfan?

Local people knew that the land on which the stricken homes at Armou were built was unsafe, so why did the authorities allow their construction without taking ground conditions into account when issuing building permits?

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.

When it rains it pours!

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 enlarged drains, and contoured and cleared ravines blocked by discarded rubbish.

Almost immediately, a developer in-filled 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 a 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.

More recently, a development at Nata built by British property developer Adrian Mills (who subsequently skipped the island), was declared unsafe by an independent surveyor who visited one of the properties in 2007.

In 2011, a development of 14 villas and apartment at Tala started to shift prompting the police to close the main road leading to the Kamares village, diverting traffic from the area. (The road has been reopened).

The homes at Armou

The development of 6 homes on a hillside of soft clay at Armou is at great risk from the winter rains. One of the houses has already been deemed unfit for habitation and has been condemned; local people have avoided the area.

But landslides in the area could also be triggered by excavations and vibrations caused by 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-permeable nature of the soil, etc.

These factors may impact on neighbouring areas, damaging buildings, and accelerating nearby active slides.

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 Cyprus Geological Survey Department, 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 pursue their case through the courts; landslide is a natural hazard and properties built in these areas are generally uninsurable.

A disaster waiting to happen

You may recall 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 construction in unsafe areas – or ensure that the plans take ground conditions into account before issuing building permits.

Or perhaps they’re waiting for a tragedy like Aberfan to strike in Cyprus!

Readers' comments

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  • Robert Briggs says:

    @ Mr Janner, as far as I can perceive, the EU do not appear to have the guts to do anything about this situation. (Hope that I am proved to be wrong.) R.B.

  • Janner says:

    Odd_Job_Bob,

    Such pessimism! You have to remain optimistic otherwise life will ruin you!

    Cyprus can be salvaged. Everyone knows what needs to be done. The EU authorities have the power to see it through. Lets see how serious Germany, France and the big players at the EU are about making all this work.

    If they only pay lip service to the rules then people will play the same game back.

    If the issue of the houses being built on a known ‘don’t build here its unsuitable’ site is not dealt with then what choice do people have. Without effective national/EU remedies it will all begin to crumble………eventually (and I’m talking about the EU as we know it).

  • Odd_Job_Bob says:

    Sorry Janner,

    I was taking the P.

    The EU have consistently done nothing at all (nor really do I expect them to), so 1000 times nothing equals nothing.

    No-one loves a smart-a*se…

    Apologies.

  • Janner says:

    Odd_Job_Bob

    I do hope you are right. This story, virtually every story just seems utterly incredible. I cannot understand how any right minded EU official can fail to see and fail to act on what is happening so frequently and across all walks of life in Cyprus.

    If the EU does not act to protect citizens (including Cypriots) then who do we turn to?

    These poor people who may lose their homes and the apparent safety issue must be dealt with immediately.

  • Odd_Job_Bob says:

    Andyp,

    Only if it’s sliding down a hillside. You know, so I can be closer to the sea (and all that gas and oil).

    Janner,

    I think I know what the EU response will be! I’m pretty sure that, now they’ve reviewed the situation, it will be at least 1000 times more powerful and effective than their last response…

  • andyp says:

    Having made some enquiries, including posts on this forum, over some time the worrying reality and answer to the question posed by this headline is that when it all goes wrong with your build or buy in Cyprus you are on your own and the authorities will not help. Sad but true.

    Where it does go wrong and it does it is down to the individual to pursue matters through the courts, a time consuming, expensive, health sucking and often fruitless exercise.

    There is NO protection.
    There is NO swift resolution.
    There is NO help.

    As one who bought a small property in Cyprus some years ago with a view to retiring here that dream has long since gone.

    Whilst some have a good experience, and good luck to them, too many do not. In my eight year experience nothing has changed.

    Rant over. Anyone want to buy a lovely 3 bed without deeds?

  • janner says:

    If the European powers do not take action against Cyprus then they are as good as endorsing their ‘system’.

    If this is the case then will the result be any different at the ECHR? I doubt it.

  • steve says:

    I purchased one of the properties in Nata and since 2007 I have spent over 45 thousand euro building retaining walls around the building which seems to have stemmed the onslaught of mud coming through the back doors. Other neighbours have spent similar amounts doing the same. Why did the district office and planning dept allow the building to go ahead. Why did the bank give out individual mortgages on the properties and release all the funds when the site was only 65 percent complete. The builder has been in liquidation for years (2007) but the receiver is still doing nothing. The sad fact is that these buildings will fall down before this mess is sorted out. CHEERS CYPRUS

  • Stuart says:

    Does anyone know if there have been any winners in the Cyprus courts who have successfully sued their developer when their home has eventually collapsed after sliding down the local hillside?

    From what Mike says below, it would appear that all this talk of ‘suing developers’ is just pie in the sky given the corruption that exists within the Cyprus legal system if ‘system’ is not too good a word for it.

    Abandoning hope of any redress is more the reality of the situation throughout Cyprus, I regret to say.

  • Adrian says:

    The building regulations will be tightened up the same way as the title deed laws were amended,when it suits the government to act. Too many people have a vested interest in off loading suspect land, probably with a mortgage on it and in Cyprus nobody is afraid of being taken to court because if a “foreigner” is involved the law is twisted around until there is no justice.

  • Mike says:

    Sadly you realise you are on a loser when you enter the courtroom and see the developer approach the Judge, shake hands, exchange greetings and the Judge says “please thank your wife for the marvellous dinner last night, we both thoroughly enjoyed it”. To sue the developer in Cyprus is fraught with complications and unlike anything any North European would have experienced. It may even be that when you win you lose. What happened to Conor O’Dwyer?

  • @andyp – the buyer would sue the developer – he has overall responsibility for the structural integrity of the building.

  • andyp says:

    Like Costas I am trying to get to the same end Nigel and had posted earlier on the Armou story.

    As we all now know nothing is as it seems in Cyprus in regard to property buying hence perhaps a stupid question or two but—

    How can a buyer sue or claim against a developer’s engineer when the buyer has no relationship with said engineer nor any idea what was asked of the engineer in the first place? If we can only sue the engineer surely this makes things far more complicated for the buyer or is that the plan?

  • Costas Apacket says:

    The question is, who will be held responsible if a disaster happens and will any of the victims or their families gain justice through the Cypriot legal system?

    Who is responsible for building control and effective implementation of building regulations?

  • The views expressed in readers' comments are not necessarily shared by the Cyprus Property News.

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