Spanish farmer Juan Francisco Abelaneda’s salad and watermelon fill the shelves of European stores in winter and summer. But maybe not for much longer.
The faucet that turned the arid semi-desert of southeastern Spain into Europe’s market garden may be about to close, threatening the intensive farms that feed most of the continent.
Spain is the EU’s largest producer of fruit and vegetables and nearly half of its exports are grown by farmers such as Abellaneda, crops irrigated by massive water transfers from the Tagus River hundreds of kilometers to the north.
But with climate change hitting Spain hard, and three-quarters of the country at risk of desertification, the government decided to limit the flow of dwindling waters from the Tagus to the southeast of the Levante.
The level of the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula has fallen so dangerously, that in some places it is possible to cross its dry bed on foot in summer.
Just like the shrinking of the Nile in Egypt and the Tigris in Iraq, the right to draw from the waters of the Tagus River — which crosses into Portugal before flowing into the Atlantic Ocean — has become a political hot potato.
The debate is heating up in the run-up to regional elections later this month, with the intensive farming that is one of the pillars of Spain’s economy being called into question.
“We need water (from the Tagus River),” Abellaneda said. “If they take it from us, there will be nothing but desert here.”
“What are we going to live on?”
The 47-year-old obsessively tossed the dusty augers of broccoli that grows on 300 hectares (740 acres) near Murcia.
Despite another abnormally hot and dry spring, the farm he and his brothers run is thriving, exporting 3,000 tons of fruit and vegetables annually.
In the time of his father and grandfather, Murcia was one of the poorest parts of Spain, a land of subsistence farmers. High-tech greenhouses and storage warehouses now stretch to the horizon.
“If they don’t bring us water, what are we going to live for?” asked Abellaneda, a founding member of the Delores Co-op, which employs 700 people.
He does not want to turn back the clock and fears widespread job losses if they lose water.
“The region is one of the driest” in Spain, with not enough water of its own for intensive farming, said Domingo Baeza, a professor of river ecology at the Autonomous University of Madrid.
To make the Southeast boom so dry, Spain began construction of the giant Tagus Segura water conveyance project under dictator General Franco in 1960. It took nearly 20 years to complete 300 kilometers of canals, tunnels, aqueducts and reservoirs, bringing in billions of liters From the waters from the Tagus south to the Segura Basin between Murcia and Andalusia.
Once hailed as a role model in dealing with drought, he is now accused of making it worse.
It has also made the Levante region — which includes the dry provinces of Murcia, Alicante and Almeria — the biggest horticultural hotspot in Europe, employing 100,000 people in companies that generate more than three billion euros ($3.3 billion) a year.
Rivers dry up
But today ‘the coronet suffers,’ said Baeza. ‘It has deteriorated in many places … because we have far outstripped its capacity (with) the uncontrolled expansion of the land it irrigate.’
Since the transportation project was built, the average temperature in Spain has increased by 1.3 degrees Celsius (more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the Spanish Meteorological Service.
The Spanish government estimates that the flow of the Tagus River fell by 12 percent over the same period and could drop by up to 40 percent by 2050.
Extreme heatwaves over the past few years, sometimes very early in the year – with temperatures recorded again last week – have dried up rivers and reservoirs and led to water outages.
“Global warming has changed things,” said Julio Barrea of Greenpeace. Transport “no longer works” for Spain. He insisted, “The people of the Tagus need water (which is being lost by farms in the southeast) to survive.”
In the central region of Castile-La Mancha, where the waters of the Tagus are drawn far south, the effects of losing so much water have been visible for years.
“Our land has been sacrificed,” declared Borja Castro, the socialist mayor of Alcocer, a village near the Intrepinas and Buendía reservoirs, whose waters are pumped to the southeast.
Known as the “Sea of Castile” for the artificial lakes created by the Tagus Dam in the 1950s, it used to attract many tourists who came for weekends to swim, boat, and eat at its restaurants.
“It was really lively,” Borja’s father, Carlos Castro, 65, remembers, pointing to the ruins of a cafe near where he used to swim as a teenager. Now “It’s like a desert,” he sighed.
‘Food security is in danger’
The beaches where tourists used to rest are gone with the lake water now tens of meters deeper than where it once was.
“Everything stopped when the damned water trucking started,” said Mayor Castro, who wants to stop it completely. “With our water gone businesses, jobs and part of our population.
“They turned Levante into a European garden, but with water that came from somewhere else. It’s crazy.”
Madrid wants to reduce water transfers by a third – except during times of heavy rain – to raise the level of the Tagus.
But without this water, the southeast will not be able to maintain modern and competitive agriculture, which could jeopardize Europe’s food security, Alfonso Galvez, head of the Farmers’ Union, warned Asaga.
Farmers’ pressure group SCRATS said the cutting could lead to 12,200 hectares of arable land being abandoned. She said the economic cost would also be enormous, amounting to 137 million euros annually, with 15,000 job losses.
It is indefensible
The political battle over water in the run-up to this month’s election has created some strange companions.
The Socialist-controlled region of Valencia in the east has allied itself with the conservatives-run Murcia from the PP to try to halt any cuts. Meanwhile, the socialist Castile-La Mancha supports the government’s decree with the help of the local right-wingers.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s left-wing government said it had no choice but to cut off the flow to comply with Spanish Supreme Court rulings and EU environmental rules calling for protection schemes for water basins.
Environmental Transition Minister Teresa Ribera said the decision was based on “the best possible scientific knowledge”, and promised more money to develop other sources of water.
The government is keen on desalination, which is already under way in Levante, but on a relatively small scale.
But many farmers are not convinced. Galvez said the desalinated water lacks nutrients and has a “huge environmental impact because “you need a lot of electricity to make it” in addition to its detrimental effects on the marine ecosystem.
The conservative president of the Murcia region, Fernando López Meras, is equally skeptical. He said the costs were prohibitive—three to four times more than transporting water from the Tagus. “They are talking about a price of around 1.4 euros a liter. That’s the price of petrol!”
He said farmers had a right to water because the constitution stated that “Spain’s water belongs to all Spaniards.” The desalination plants were at best an aid rather than an “alternative” water source.
For environmentalists, Spain’s entire agricultural model needs to be rethought. “Agriculture uses more than 80 percent of the fresh water in Spain…it can’t be conserved,” said Greenpeace’s Parrilla.
He said there must be a significant reduction in the amount of land devoted to intensive farming if Spain is to avoid disaster. “Spain cannot be Europe’s garden if our waters are becoming increasingly scarce.”
© 2023 AFP
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