Cisterns could boost sustainable tourism on Greek island of Santorini

Susan Chen '16, Laura Kenny, M.R.P. '17, Jung-Ju Lee '16, and graduate student Jared Enriquez inspect a water cistern in disrepair on the Greek island of Santorini with Nikos Mainas, director of the Water Authority of Thera, and his assistant.

Since the 1970s, the Greek island of Santorini has enjoyed a thriving tourism industry. While the nearly 2 million people who annually visit the island pump money into the local economy, they also put a tremendous strain on the island’s infrastructure, particularly the usage of water. This problem is compounded by a lack of rainfall during the dry summer months when the tourist season is at its peak.

A group of Cornell researchers is helping address this issue by exploring the potential revitalization of an old technology, one that lurks just beneath Santorini’s volcanic rock surface: subterranean cisterns.

The interdisciplinary project was led by Gail Holst-Warhaft, retired director of the Mediterranean Studies Initiative in Cornell’s Institute for European Studies and an adjunct professor of comparative literature in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Tammo Steenhuis, professor in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The team, which included six graduate students, visited Santorini in June 2016 to study the feasibility of renovating six historic cisterns that can catch and store rainfall with the aim of strengthening water security on the island while also educating tourists and businesses about local sustainability issues and Santorini’s architectural heritage.

“The whole island in some ways is a museum of various civilizations coming and going, and the only one that has been really completely irresponsible about water management is the present,” Holst-Warhaft said.

Their research resulted in a paper, “Sustainable Water Management in the Tourism Economy: Linking the Mediterranean’s Traditional Rainwater Cisterns to Modern Needs,” that was published in the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute’s electronic journal Water in November 2017.

Santorini’s history of sophisticated water management stretches back 5,000 years to the Bronze Age, when pipes of cold and thermal-heated water ran beneath the island settlement of Akrotiri. Later civilizations built underground water reservoirs, many of which ceased to be used following an earthquake in 1956 that destroyed much of the island. The rise of tourism in the 1970s brought new water infrastructure that seemingly spelled the end for the cisterns.

Interdisciplinary collaboration

To launch their project, Holst-Warhaft established a partnership with Santorini stakeholders, Global Water Partnership-Mediterranean and the Water and Sewerage Authority of Santorini, which emptied out the cisterns so the students could venture underground, take measurements and evaluate the containers’ capacity for restoration. In addition, the team developed a plan to designate a cistern at the Byzantine church of Panagia Episkopi as a UNESCO Global Network of Water Museums, making its legacy accessible to tourists and the public online. The team also worked to map out a walking tour along trails that connect the cisterns, wells and other water-related features. The museum and water walk have the potential to raise greater awareness among island visitors for the need to use less water during their stay and could make Santorini a model for ecotourism.

“Tourism needs to be sensitized to the necessity to conserve water because it’s the number one industry on the island,” Holst-Warhaft said. “The locals’ consumption of water is not significant. It’s tourists that have actually changed the whole water balance on the island.”

The project’s inclusion of students from a wide cross-section of disciplines – from city and regional planning to architecture to engineering to the social sciences – was essential to addressing such a complex issue, according to Steenhuis.

“In order to solve sustainable issues, all disciplines need to be involved,” he said. “We cannot engineer our way out of the new water crisis anymore.”

Jared Enriquez, a third-year doctoral student in city and regional planning, agreed that a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach was crucial for the project.

“Problems don’t have boundaries. The interdisciplinary nature of water management especially – and the socio-technical issues involved with rehabilitating old cisterns in Greece, in a nation with a fiscal crisis and heavy reliance on tourism – required people with varied backgrounds who understand the nature of water management and governance issues, and the ecology of water,” Enriquez said.

The Santorini project was made possible by the Academic Venture Fund and rapid response fund grants from the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, where Holst-Warhaft and Steenhuis are faculty fellows, as well as funding from the Cornell Institute for European Studies.

“The Atkinson Center was very supportive. Without their help, we couldn’t have had any student involvement. I feel very grateful because I’m not your traditional Atkinson Center grantee. I’m out in left field in that I normally do Mediterranean music and literature, rather than water,” Holst-Warhaft said. “It was quite an adventure. You know, wading around in mud at the bottom of a cistern is not everybody’s idea of a Greek island holiday. But the students actually loved it all.”

David Nutt is managing editor for the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

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