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The Rain in Spain Is Mainly on the Wane

A dry winter and spring have left much of the country parched. Politicians argue over what to do, but no new solutions are in sight.

June 19, 2005|Ciaran Giles | Associated Press Writer

ALICANTE, Spain — No sooner are you off the plane at Alicante's sun-blasted airport than the billboards leap out with ads for paradise: palm trees, 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 have left reservoirs in some regions at 20% of normal capacity. Rivers have lost nearly a third of their volume, and crops across this agricultural powerhouse are wilting.

The problem looms even larger as the country becomes enmeshed 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 power last spring. They insist on a totally new understanding of water, based on desalination and water banks, better management and less squandering.

Deja vu.

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."

Farmers in his region have been told that they can irrigate for a maximum of eight minutes a day. Torres doesn't rule out abandoning the land and going back to his old job in a shoe factory.

Losses nationally so far are estimated at $2 billion in failed crops and fodder for grazing animals. The Agricultural Ministry predicts that grain production will fall 25% this year, and up to 50% in worst-hit regions. Orange groves and vineyards, still reeling from last winter's frosts, promise a spartan harvest in the fall.

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 [$36,000] in the red, and I don't know how I'm going to handle that," said Joaquin Bretons, 41, a father of two. He gazed helplessly across his stunted chickpea and barley fields outside the southeastern town of Caudete.

Neighboring Portugal is in similar trouble.

Almost 70% 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' Assn. "Things have never been this bad."

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 watering is 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 anyone 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.... Anticipation and prevention are the two recipes."

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 said.

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% of its water before it reaches the tap, and only 1.5% is recycled. Up to 80% of its water goes into irrigation systems, the highest rate in Europe, and four-fifths of the systems are considered obsolete.

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 although 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.

"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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