No sooner are you off the plane at Alicante’s sunblasted airport than the billboards leap out with ads for paradise: palm-treed, seaside villas, sparkling swimming pools, emerald-green golf courses.
But hike inland for half an hour and the bald earth, drying reservoirs and stunted crops tell a different tale.
Although the millions of tourists visiting Spain’s coasts this summer may not realize it, much of the country is parched with no oasis in sight. The driest winter and spring for more than 60 years has left reservoirs in some regions with 20 percent of their normal capacity and crops across this agricultural powerhouse wilting. Rivers have lost nearly a third of their volume.
The problem looms even larger as the country becomes embedded in a bitter argument over what to do. The conservative opposition Popular Party supports resurrecting a mega-plan for hundreds of dams and pipes to transfer the water from the wetter north to the center and south.
The Socialists, backed by most other parties and ecological groups, scrapped that as soon as they got into government last spring. They insist on a totally new understanding of water, based on desalination and water banks, better management and less squandering.
In the 1990s a five-year drought hit harvests and triggered a bitter conflict among parties and the country’s semiautonomous regions over water rights.
Ten years on, little seems to have changed except the party in government.
“We know droughts are cyclical. We should be used to this,” said Juan Manuel Pascual Torres, 40, a melon and pepper farmer from the southeastern town of Elche. “But we never seem to learn.
“Right now we’re at a critical point. If we don’t get substantial rainfall soon we’re in real trouble,” he said.
Farmers in his region have been told they can irrigate for a maximum of eight minutes a day and not when and as much as they choose. Torres doesn’t rule out abandoning the land and going back to his old job in a shoe factory.
Meanwhile, the threat of summer forest fires looms even bigger than usual.
“If it doesn’t rain soon, I’m going to be some 30,000 euros ($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.
Neighboring Portugal is in similar trouble.
Almost 70 percent of the country is in severe or extreme drought, the Meteorological Institute says.
It’s 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.
With rainfall since October at its lowest since 1901, “These are very, very difficult times,” said Francisco Palma, president of the Alentejo Farmers’ Association. “Things have never been this bad.”
No crisis, government says
Back in Madrid, the Spanish government maintains that for the moment it’s a rainfall shortage, not a water crisis and that reserves guarantee there’ll be no domestic consumption restrictions this summer.
But several regions have had to take measures. Showers on many of the beaches of southeastern Spain have been turned off, water pressure to houses has been eased, and in the hard-hit northeastern province of Huesca, swimming pools have been left empty and lawn-spraying prohibited.
“We have to change our idea of water because there isn’t enough water for everything,” said Jaime Pallop, director of the Environment Ministry’s Water Department. “This is the reality and it should be apparent to any one with any intelligence.
“What’s important for Spain, as a country, is to accept droughts as a normal occurrence, not a punishment from God or a biblical plague. It’s simply a condition of our environment and this ought to encourage us to manage and live with it. Droughts are part of our culture. Anticipation and prevention are the two recipes.”
Water from the sea?
Public water banks and as many desalination plants as needed are planned, with complementary measures to protect aquifers and forests.
“The sea holds the future for us,” Environment Minister Cristina Narbona maintains.
Citrus farmer Juan Manuel Selma is skeptical.
“The problem is not the water but the politicians and their plans,” he said. “Only an idiot would let fresh river water run to the sea and then take it back and desalinate it.”
Spain loses more than 60 percent of its water before it reaches the tap and only 1.5 percent is recycled. Up to 80 percent of its water goes into irrigation systems, the highest rate in Europe, and four-fifths of these systems are considered out-of-date.
50 million tourists a year
Spaniards each use an average of 40 gallons of water daily. Fifty million tourists annually, on top of a Spanish population of 40 million, shoot demand sky-high.
And while Spaniards pay for their water, they like to rinse their dishes under taps running full blast, hose down their cars and water their lawns for hours on end.
“To get wood we don’t have to destroy the forest but rather look after it. It’s the same with water,” said Pedro Arrojo, whose work in water conservation won him San Francisco’s prestigious Goldman environmental prize in 1999.
“We must recuperate our rivers and aquifers. That’s the new culture of water — sustainable and prudential.”
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