Published in Cyprus Mail By Theo Panayides Published on January 3, 2010
As the island faces the effects of global warming, one man has taken on the Herculean task of educating people on the island and finding solutions to the problems. THEO PANAYIDES meets him.
Happy New Year: a brand-new year, a brand-new decade. If there's one Big Issue likely to define the 2010s, it's surely the Environment - but looking at the facts would take the fizz out of any New Year's champagne. Global warming will hit Cyprus hard, if trends continue. The threat of desertification is real: in some areas - the Kornos-Stavrovouni area near Nicosia, or the foot of the Troodos Mountains near Kionia - as many as half of all trees have already been lost to years of low rainfall. Every year brings increasing amounts of dust from North Africa, adding to already-poor air quality. The combination of car-exhaust fumes and high temperatures produces more ozone, which is cancerous. Nor will warming only affect trees; it could also create a public health crisis, Cypriots afflicted with new diseases previously found only in hotter countries. Outbreaks of dengue fever could be commonplace in the (near) future.
All the above is vouchsafed to me by Charalambos Theopemptou - which makes sense, because it's his job. Charalambos has been Commissioner for the Environment since 2006, working out of an office near Makarios Avenue in Nicosia. The premises are spacious but the only people working there are Charalambos and his secretary, plus the occasional volunteer; he's supposed to have more staff, but approval's been delayed in the usual sluggish government way.
Meanwhile, his desk is piled high with letters from people facing this or that environmental problem; there are 200 unanswered emails in his Inbox; he can barely find time for his 'real' job, which is advising the President (and/or relevant Ministers) on eco-issues. "I find it very difficult to say no," he admits, gesturing at the profusion of papers in front of him. "But I don't have the time, and I don't have the support to do this."
'What a gloomy picture!' you might be thinking. 'An understaffed Commissioner inundated with problems as global warming draws ever closer!' - but in fact the opposite is true. Global warming barely features in our conversation - instead we talk about the many local issues which are slowly being tackled, understaffed or not - and Charalambos is anything but gloomy, a broad-shouldered 54-year-old with a calm face, neat silver hair, boundless energy and a booming laugh.
He looks like your favourite plumber, the one who not only fixes your boiler but also tells a funny story about something that happened when he fixed the boiler at some other house. "I don't know how to write good essays," he admits (though he's constantly writing articles and letters to ministers). "I'm an engineer. I define the problem, and I find the solutions. That's the way I work."
When he says he's an engineer, he's not just being metaphorical. He's been an eco-activist for 20 years, was among the founder-members of the Cyprus Green Party and served two terms as Executive Secretary - but he's an electronics engineer by training, and taught electronics for 20 years (specialising in computer hardware) at the Higher Technical Institute before ending up in his current job. In a way, of course, being Commissioner for the Environment isn't unlike being a teacher: part of the job is trying to educate the public, and Charalambos does frequent presentations at high schools all around the island.
Is it true that young people are very aware about these issues? Oh, they're aware, he concedes with a shrug. They're just not "actively involved" - which is also true of Cypriots in general: "We complain while sitting in cafés".
One of his current bugbears is the four-lane road that's being planned in western Nicosia - "an environmental crime!" says Charalambos with feeling - that's going to destroy two parks, bisecting both Athalassa Park and the old University of Cyprus site in Aglandjia. He's tried to get support from the University in speaking out against it, only to be met with apathy and indifference; if students won't demonstrate even on this - a subject close to their hearts, at least in theory - how are they going to bestir themselves on pollution, or pesticides, or indeed climate change?
Indeed, the only time Cypriots get upset about the environment seems to be when it affects them directly. What kind of problems do people write in with? "Rubbish," he replies (a literal description, not a value-judgment). "Unfinished roadworks, piles of rubble. Or else noise - either because there's a factory nearby, or some local authority gave a permit for a nightclub or whatever. And the other thing is animals: they poisoned my dog, or I'm going to poison my neighbour's dog - stuff like that."
Should he really be addressing such petty disputes, when he could be trying to minimise our carbon footprint? But maybe there's a strategy there. Cyprus is a small place, and it only takes a few satisfied customers to boost your public profile.
Sitting in an office making statements, telling people to recycle more and use fewer plastic bags, only gets you so far: "When it's one guy talking about [issues], people don't pay attention," points out Charalambos. The key to his work isn't telling people what to do; it's getting people to listen. Only then can real pressure be brought to bear on the vested interests that rule Cyprus.
It's all about being visible - which also explains his blog (http://theopemptou.blogspot.com), a place where he posts about his latest campaigns and obsessions (the site gets around 4,000 hits a month). When a member of the public tipped him off that petrol stations were cleaning cars with drinking-water (most of his info comes from civic-minded citizens, plus occasional civil servants), the charges were hotly denied; after he posted photos on the blog - and the photos were re-published in local papers - something actually got done. The blog also includes his diary for each day, ranging from TV appearances to meeting with students to discuss their school projects.
Above all, the blog fits his personality - which is casual, accessible and candid, as you might expect from an ex-teacher. Does he think more people in government should follow his example?
Well, there is a gap between rulers and ruled, he admits. A few days ago he called up a woman who'd sent him a letter, and she thanked him profusely even though he couldn't actually help her: "She was just impressed because I called her" - which is clearly more than most government departments would've done. Then you get the students, especially those who email from abroad saying "I'm looking for this information" or "Send me everything you have on this"; it's a nuisance, he says with a chuckle, but he tries to help them all.
So what kind of hours does he work? "Well, the day has 24 hours. If I'm not sleeping..."
I suspect he doesn't really mind. His two kids are grown, his wife is understanding (she's also an eco-activist). Family life can afford to take a back-seat for a few years. Besides, problem-solving is what he does best; it brings out the engineer in him. "I'm persistent," he explains. "I'm very, very persistent". He never gets angry. Instead he pesters, follows up, calls to make sure that people have done what they said they'd do; "I have a lot of energy".
He works behind the scenes, happy to play politics when required. "Most of the things I do, people don't know the Commissioner was behind this," he says with a smile. Others get the credit, egos are stroked, politicians allowed to bask in the limelight. "My job is to do things," shrugs Charalambos. "It's to change policy. It's not to advertise that I've done this or I've done that."
If only that job were easier. Yes, there are victories: 2010 will see the first sanitary landfill opening in Koshi - meaning all the waste from Larnaca will now be recycled automatically - and the problem of rainfall (i.e. making sure it gets absorbed in the ground, instead of merely throwing it away as we've done for years) is now being tackled. But there are so many interests ranged against him: corporate polluters, shady businessmen with high-level contacts, the dead weight of "usual practice".
Does he ever try to make the case for the environment and feel he's simply not being listened to? "The answer is yes," he replies simply.
It's a delicate balance, he explains with a touch of desperation: he can't upset the apple-cart by pushing too hard on one issue, or he risks losing out on other issues. What are the biggest problems facing us in Cyprus? Can he list the Top Five Issues? He thinks for a moment: "I think the Turkish invasion is the No. 1 issue," he begins.
"No, I meant environmental - " I interrupt, but Charalambos nods as if to say 'Wait and see'.
"The second thing is water," he continues. "Other issues are waste - rubbish of all sorts - energy, and air quality. These are the issues. But with any issue that you look at, the Turkish invasion is the problem.
"Take any other European country. They have an elected government that deals with the issues of the country." Here in Cyprus, on the other hand, all our Presidents since 1974 have been placed in a position where "almost all their time is taken up with the Cyprus Problem. I know it's the right thing to do," he adds patriotically, "but it's a problem. It takes up so many resources. It would be a very different situation if whoever was President did not have the Cyprus Problem, and was dealing with the day-to-day problems."
Maybe that'll finally get solved in 2010 (though let's not hold our breath).
Meanwhile, Charalambos Theopemptou goes on - travelling constantly, solving disputes and giving presentations, posting on his blog, writing to government departments, drafting reports for Ministers. Maybe he even finds time for his hobbies now and then, namely old-school rock music - he's seen them all, Led Zep and Yes and Black Sabbath - and amateur photography. Above all, though, he tries to set priorities. So many problems, so little time - and it's just one man and his secretary, plus the occasional volunteer.
"I fight my fights," he asserts. "But you realise that, if you are on your own, it's sometimes very difficult. I do as much as I can for a particular issue. If I feel that I have a route through which I can get results, I will pursue it. If I keep fighting and I don't get any results, then I divert my resources to some other fight."
"I'm an engineer," he repeats. "I try to find solutions."