U.S. Water News Online
ALICANTE, Spain -- No sooner are you off the plane at
Alicante's sunblasted airport but the billboards leap out with
enticing advertisements of palm-treed, seaside villas, swimming pools
and emerald green golf courses.
But a half-hour hike inland and the scorched earth, near-dry
reservoirs and stunted crops tell a different tale.
Although the millions of tourists visiting Spain's "costas" this
summer may not realize it, much of the nation is parched and there's
no oasis in sight. The driest winter and spring for more than 60
years have left reservoirs in some regions with 20 percent their
normal capacity and crops across this European agricultural
powerhouse nation wilting. Rivers have lost nearly a third of their
"Right now we're at a critical point," said Juan Manuel Pascual
Torres, 40, a melon and pepper farmer from the southeastern town of
Elche. "If we don't get substantial rainfall soon we're in real
Farmers in his region have been told they can irrigate for a
maximum of eight minutes a day. Torres doesn't rule out abandoning
his crops to seek work in a shoe factory as he did during the 1990s
when another prolonged drought hit Spain.
Losses nationally so far are estimated at some $1.95 billion in
failed crops and fodder for grazing animals. The Agricultural
Ministry predicts grain production to be slashed 25 percent
nationally this year with some southern and eastern regions suffering
shortfalls of up to 50 percent.
Orange groves and vineyards, still reeling from last winter's
frosts, promise a meager harvest in the fall.
"If it doesn't rain soon, I'm going to be some $38,000 in the red
and I don't know how I'm going to handle that," said Joaquin Bretons,
a 41-year-old father of two, gazing helplessly across his stunted
chickpea and barley fields outside the southeastern town of Caudete.
Stalks that should be standing a meter tall barely reach above their
A bitter argument is raging over how the drought should be
One side, led by the conservative opposition Popular Party, calls
for revival of a multibillion dollar transfer program that called for
the water-richer northern areas to supply the center and south.
The governing Socialists, backed by most other parties and
ecological groups, scrapped that plan as soon as they got into
government last spring. They insist on a total rethink of water
resources, based on desalination plants and water banks, with an
emphasis on less squandering and more protection of aquifers and
"We have to change our idea of water because there isn't enough
water for everything," said Jaime Pallop, the Environment Ministry's
Water Department Director.
Less than a decade ago Spain was in the throes of a five-year
drought that hit harvests, forced restrictions in towns, and
triggered a bitter interregional and cross-party conflict over water
Ten years on, little seems to have changed except the party in
"We know droughts are cyclical. We should be used to this," said
Torres. "But we never seem to learn."
Spain's Iberian neighbor Portugal is in a similar predicament.
Almost 70 percent of the country is in severe or extreme drought
conditions, the Meteorological Institute says.
The drought is especially acute in the southern provinces of
Alentejo, a farming region, and Algarve, a coastal vacation area
whose population of about 400,000 more than doubles in the summer due
to foreign tourists.
In those regions, rainfall since October is at its lowest since
1901. In Faro, the Algarve's largest city, just 141 5.55 inches of
rain has fallen in eight months -- 28 percent of the average. Farmers
in the Alentejo estimate losses at more than $1 billion. Grain
harvests are 70 percent down from last year.
Madrid's Socialist government maintains that reserves guarantee
there will be no domestic consumption restrictions this summer. But
several regions have had to take measures, such as shutting off
showers on beaches and reducing water pressure to houses.
Many farmers are urging the government to return to the water
"The problem is not the water but the politicians and their
plans," said citrus farmer Juan Manuel Selma. "Transfers worked for
the Romans and there wasn't much they didn't know," he said,
referring to the ancient aqueducts that still carry water across
parts of Spain today.
But statistics indicate the government has a point about the need
to reform water policy.
Spain loses more than 60 percent of its water before it reaches
the tap and only 1.5 percent is recycled. The country is tops in
Europe for using up to 80 percent of its water in irrigation systems,
of which only a fifth could be considered modern.
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