Coronavirus Updates: Cornell is working with campus partners, as well as local and state resources, to protect the health and well-being of the Cornell community. Learn more ⟶

You are here

The Santorini Project

Inside the cistern

Santorini was the site of the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. That explosion, which took place around 1,500 BCE, created the unique geography and geology of the island, which now consists of the crescent-shaped rim of the crater, with small islands in the middle. Many scientists think Santorini may have been the ‘Lost Atlantis’ that Plato talked about.

Ash and rock from the explosion buried the Minoan port city of Akrotiri in the 5th millenium BC. Bronze Age Minoan civilization was centered on the island of Crete, but Akrotiri was an important trading center. It was well preserved under a thick layer of volcanic earth, and excavations carried out in the 1960’s revealed a rich civilization with beautiful frescos on the walls, three-storied houses, and remarkably sophisticated plumbing with a double system of pipes, probably for hot (geothermal) and cold water. After the Bronze Age explosion the island was occupied again by the Phoenicians, Dorians, Romans, Byzantines, Franks (northern Europeans), and Turks. In World War II, it was occupied first by the Italians and then the Germans.

Water was always scarce on the island. There is only one spring (Zoodohou Pigis – the Life-giving Spring), and islanders developed crops like vines and olives that could survive with only the moisture from dew. They stored rainwater in elaborate underground reservoirs that survive to this day, although many have fall into ruin or remain unused because tourism has brought sufficient revenue to the island to enable them to construct desalination plants. There are currently 5 of these, with a sixth under construction.

Santorini is one of the major tourist sites of the Mediterranean, with a winter population of approximately 30,000 people and a summer population of 100,000, and with as many as 2-3 million visitors a year.

The Santorini Project was envisaged as a collaboration between Cornell University (Cornell Institute for European Studies and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future), Global Water Partnership-Mediterranean, and the local water authority of the island to investigate the condition of a number of public cisterns with a view to their rehabilitation or abandonment. Global Water Partnership-Mediterranean, which has restored and built rain-water storage tanks on a number of Greek and Mediterranean islands, helped shape the project and six cisterns were selected for investigation. Mrs. Eirini Koch a lawyer who was raised on the island, was our guide to ancient and Byzantine sites.

Nikos Mainas, director of the water board of Thira, supplied the students with waders and boots and emptied some of the cisterns so they could go down with him to measure and test the cisterns. These large, impressive structures, with large underground chambers and in some cases, stone columns, were mostly in poor condition. Even if the cisterns are not able to be restored to their former state or used to store rainwater, it was established that some of these can be rehabilitated to store desalinated or imported water. A unique feature of the cisterns is their impermeable lining, made from a mixture of pumice and lime plaster and finished by polishing the surface with a large stone pebble from the sea. The “Theran Earth”, used to line the cisterns was so valuable that it was used to line the Suez Canal and exported to German during the Nazi Occupation.

Wen Chen, Abhinav Vijay, Jared Enriques, Jung-Ju Lee, Laura Kenny, and David Tipping were selected for the research project because they represented a range of relevant disciplines -- planning, engineering, operations research, and communications.

Click here to find more images and information by about volcanic Santorini.

Rainwater Harvesting and Storage
Susan Chen

David Tipping, a member of the Cornell team with broad experience in public health, developed a long report on the project (see link to full report below). In the introduction he summarized some of the key issues the team was addressing.

Today, Santorini is experiencing widespread water shortages. The volume of metered water that was supplied in 2015 (1,135,000 Liters/annum) only met around 63 % of current water demand.  The environment is water-scarce.  The distribution of rainfall is geographically limited, and the community do not have major seasonal/permanent sources of surface water to draw from.  While water can be extracted from the island aquifer using wells, this source of water supply has, in varying degrees, become brackish.

There are 15,000 inhabitants of the island during the winter season.  However, in the summer months, the island population swells to an average of 100,000 people as a result of tourism.  Tourism is the mainstay of the local economy.  Agriculture is the other key productive activity.

The community would like to ensure the water supply system is adequate. In addition to meeting domestic needs for drinking, cooking and bathing (personal hygiene), and sanitation, satisfying these needs for the additional population of tourists is essential if the tourism industry is to be sustained and grown in the future.  To achieve this objective, the Municipality of Thira water authority (DEYATH) would like to promote greater water efficiency and sustainability.

To assist the Municipality of Thira to move forward, DEYATH developed a partnership with Cornell University following a proposal suggested by the Global Water Partnership-Mediterranean Office (GWP Mediterranean).  A Cornell research team, led by Professors Gail Holst-Warhaft and Tammo Steenhuis, visited Santorini to study the history of island water supply and investigate several underground water storage cisterns. The aim of the project was to understand if principles and practices of water supply first adopted in ancient times, then re-created and re-applied from the mid-nineteenth into the twentieth century, could be used to increase the availability of good quality water and promote a more-sustainable form of water management that better adapts Santorini’s water structures into nature.

The purpose of this report is to introduce the Cornell-Santorini Rainwater Harvesting Research project.  It first introduces ideas to underpin a new philosophy for water supply and sustainable development, considers ancient water principles and practices that offer lessons to improve water management and enhance the productivity of the tourism and agriculture sectors, provides the principal statistics of the Santorini water systems, and discusses risks of a limited water.

Water Walk Map
Walking path map

Using already existing walking paths on the island of Santorini, Laura Kenny and Jared Enriquez designed a walking tour of the island linked to sites of interest for water. Laura created an interactive map, as a guide to the water walk. In cooperation with the local water authorities, Laura is designing signs to inform visitors of historic water storage devices.

In the early summer of 2016, an interdisciplinary group of Cornell students and faculty flew to Santorini to study the island’s massive system of underground cisterns.  Historically, the cisterns were used to collect and hold rainwater for cooking, drinking, bathing, and recreational purposes. Many of these cistern have fallen into disrepair due to lack of use. The Cornell group worked with the Santorini Water Board and Global Water Partnership-Mediterranean to inspect several of the cisterns and propose ideas for future use. While some will be used to hold desalinated water in the future, we saw an opportunity to highlight these structures as a piece of history depicting Santorini’s relationship with water for locals and tourists alike.

The purpose of a “Water Walk” through Santorini is to acquaint locals and tourists with water resources of the region. Clean drinking water is a resource that is often taken for granted in many places of the world because of its apparent availability.  Through the water walks, participants will gain an understanding of freshwater availability on the island, water and its role in the history of Santorini, water management practices, and ideally, walk away with an interest in sustainable water management for the future of Santorini.

Tourism and Water Security
Santorini tourists

Despite the mounting need for water conservation measures, pervasive fears that such efforts would have deleterious consequences on the tourism industry have stalled necessary actions towards sustainable water management and practices. Tourism is Santorini’s “heavy industry” and conservation measures, such as water-saving signage and sustainability-focused services, believed by local businesses to place “undue” restrictions on tourists, who are then discouraged from returning, have consequently been met with firm resistance. The local government has similarly been reluctant to pursue measures that it believes may prove disruptive to the development of the island’s critical industry and primary source of income. The close alignment of political and economic interests in preserving existing practices and attitudes towards water poses a significant challenge to efforts towards conserving this rapidly dwindling resource on Santorini; but the coupling, nevertheless, provides an opportunity to convert both interests towards profitable conservation simultaneously. Santorini’s politics and economy are ultimately responsive to the tourism industry, and thus, long-term water security hinges upon changes in both the perception and behavior of the industry towards conservation. Achieving these changes requires the cooperation and genuine investment of two categories of actors: internal agents (local residents, businesses, and the government) and external agents (tourists).

Among the political and economic interests on Santorini, there persists the belief that the obstacles to addressing water security on the island stem from external agents, who are widely believed to be resistant to any potential restrictions on their behavior. The obstacles, however, are situated within the local sphere of the island’s businesses and government and overcoming these challenges will require a change in the perception of the internal agents that consequently cascades into changes in behavior. The local understanding of what the modern tourist wants is informed by an antiquated attitude that is now in steady decline, and consequently, water conservation efforts, driven by contemporary values, have fallen short of long-term success and effectiveness. The personal values and expectations of international travelers and vacationers have evolved markedly from that of the previous century, but as long as the island’s businesses continue to remain wedded to the assumptions of traditional tourism,[1] public campaigns and awareness raising efforts for water conservation will continue to fall short of their desired outcomes.

And while long-term water security remains the core objective, it will prove difficult to achieve without full commitment from all agents, both internal and external, who have been convinced of the value of forward-cost conservation and sustainability measures. To do so requires linking profitability to sustainability of the island’s water resources. The changing dynamics of tourism in the 21st Century is driving the criticality of this linkage in a world of rapidly changing values of a consumer base that is increasingly committed to environmentally conscious and socially responsible travel. The tourism industry is primed for sustainability.


[1] Traditional tourism (or mass tourism) is characterized by a massive saturation of a location by tourists that often results in the degradation of the environment and local economies in the process of creating immense economic growth through rapid development and industrialization.

Sopheap Theng, Xiao Qiong, and Corina Tatar. “Mass Tourism vs Alternative Tourism? Challenges and New Positionings.” Études caribéennes, 31-32 (December 2015).


group on water walk
more on walk
inside the cistern