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European products at stake in Spain’s water war



Most of Spain’s fruit and vegetable exports come from the huge flows of water from the Tagus River hundreds of kilometers to the north.

Salads and watermelons by Spanish farmer Juan Francisco Abellaneda fill the shelves of European supermarkets in winter and summer. But perhaps not for long.

The faucet that has turned the arid semi-desert of southeast Spain into Europe’s garden is about to shut off, threatening the intensive farms that feed much of the continent.

Spain is the EU’s largest producer of fruit and vegetables, and nearly half of its exports are grown by farmers like Abellaneda, irrigated by huge diversions of water from the Tagus River hundreds of kilometers (miles) to the north.

But with climate change hitting Spain hard and three-quarters of the country at risk of desertification, the government has decided to limit the Tagus’ dwindling waters to the southeastern Levante.

The level of the longest river of the Iberian Peninsula dangerously drops to such an extent that in some places in the summer it is possible to cross its dry bed on foot.

Just like the shrinking Nile in Egypt and the Tigris in Iraq, the right to use the waters of the Tagus, which empties into Portugal before emptying into the Atlantic, has become a political issue.

The debate gets even more heated ahead of regional elections later this month, when the intensive agriculture that is the backbone of the Spanish economy is being called into question.

“We need water (from the Tagus). If they take it from us, it will be nothing but a desert,” Abellaneda said.

Map of Spain showing the diversion route of water from the Tagus River to the southeast, where it is used to irrigate fruit and vegetable crops traded throughout Europe.

What are we going to live on?

The 47-year-old looked anxiously at the dusty broccoli bushes growing on his 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 fruits and vegetables a year.

During the time of his father and grandfather, Murcia was one of the poorest parts of Spain, a land where farmers lived. Greenhouses and high-tech storage facilities now stretch to the horizon.

“If they don’t bring us water, what will we live on?” asked Abellaneda, a founding member of the Deilor cooperative, which employs 700 people.

He does not want to turn back the clock and fears massive job losses if they lose water.

“The region is one of the driest” in Spain, said Domingo Baeza, professor of river ecology at the Autonomous University of Madrid, “which does not have enough of its own water for intensive agriculture.

To make the parched southeast flourish, Spain began construction on the giant Tajo Segura water diversion project under dictator General Franco in 1960. It took almost 20 years to build 300 kilometers of canals, tunnels, aqueducts and reservoirs, bringing in billions of dollars. liters of water from the Tagus River south to the Segura basin between Murcia and Andalusia.

Once hailed as a model for dealing with droughts, it is now accused of making them worse.

It has also made the Levante region, which includes the dry provinces of Murcia, Alicante and Almeria, the largest horticultural center in Europe, employing 100,000 people in businesses with a turnover of more than three billion euros ($3.3 billion) a year.

The giant Tajo Segura water diversion project began in 1960 and took nearly 20 years to complete.

The giant Tajo Segura water diversion project began in 1960 and took nearly 20 years to complete.

Rivers dry up

But today, “Tahoe is suffering,” Baeza said. “It has degraded in many places … because we have far exceeded its capacity (with) the uncontrolled expansion of the land it irrigates.”

Since the implementation of the Transfer project, the average temperature in Spain has jumped by 1.3 degrees Celsius (more than two degrees Fahrenheit), according to the Spanish meteorological service.

The Spanish government estimates that the flow of the Tagus has decreased by 12 percent over the same period and could fall as much as 40 percent by 2050.

Extreme heat waves over the past few years, sometimes early in the year when temperature records were broken again last week, have dried up rivers and reservoirs and caused water outages.

“Global warming has changed the situation,” said Greenpeace’s Julio Barea. Transfer “no longer working” for Spain. “Tezh needs water (it is inferior to farms in the southeast) to survive,” he insisted.

In the central part of the Castile-La Mancha region, where the water from the Tagus River is pumped south, the consequences of losing so much water have been visible for many years.

“Our land has been sacrificed” to Levante farmers, said Borja Castro, a socialist mayor of Alcocera, a village near the Entrepenas and Buendía reservoirs, whose water is pumped to the southeast.

Known as the “Sea of ​​Castile” because of the artificial lakes that were created by sealing off the Tagus in the 1950s, it attracted many tourists who came for weekends to swim, boat and eat at its restaurants.

“It was really lively,” recalls Borja’s father, Carlos Castro, 65, pointing to the ruins of a cafe next to where he used to go swimming as a teenager. Now “it looks like a desert,” he sighed.

The political battle over water leading up to this month's elections has spawned some odd allies.

The political battle over water leading up to this month’s elections has spawned some odd allies.

“Food security is at stake”

The beaches where tourists once lazed have disappeared along with the lake water now several dozen meters below where it was.

“Everything needs to be stopped when the damn water pumps started,” said Mayor Castro, who ordered them to stop completely. “Businesses, jobs and part of our population have gone with our water.

“They turned Levante into the garden of Europe, but with water that came from somewhere else. This is madness”.

Madrid wants to reduce the transfer of water by a third, except during periods of heavy rains, in order to raise the level of the Tagus.

But without that water, the southeast “will not be able to support modern and competitive agriculture,” which could threaten Europe’s food security, warned Alfonso Gálvez, head of the Asaja farmers’ union.

The cuts could leave 12,200 hectares of arable land abandoned, the farmer lobbying group SCRATS said. The economic costs would also be colossal, it argued, up to 137 million euros per year, with 15,000 jobs lost.

“It’s just unbearable”

The political battle over water leading up to this month’s elections has spawned some odd allies.

The right to use the waters of the Tagus River, which flows into Portugal before flowing into the Atlantic, became

The right to use the waters of the Tagus River, which flows into Portugal before emptying into the Atlantic, has become a political issue.

The socialist-held region of Valencia to the east has itself allied itself with Murcia, which is run by conservatives from the People’s Party, to try to stop any cuts. Meanwhile, the Socialist Castile-La Mancha supports the government’s decree with the help of the local right.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s leftist government has said it has no choice but to cut runoff to bring it in line with Spanish Supreme Court rulings and EU environmental regulations that require watershed protection plans.

Ecological Transition Minister Teresa Ribera said the decision was based on “the best scientific knowledge possible” and promised more money to develop other water sources.

The government is keen on desalination, which is already underway in the Levant, but on a relatively small scale.

But many farmers are not convinced. Galvez said desalinated water lacks nutrients and has “a big impact on the environment because it takes a lot of electricity to produce it” as well as its harmful effects on the marine ecosystem.

Equally skeptical is the conservative head of the Murcia region, Fernando López Miras. He said the costs were prohibitive – three to four times more than transporting water from the Tagus. “They are talking about a price of about 1.4 euros per litre. That’s the price of gasoline!”

He argued that farmers had a right to water because the constitution decreed that “Spain’s water belongs to all Spaniards”. Desalination plants were, at best, a help, not an “alternative” source of water.

For environmentalists, Spain’s entire agricultural model needs to be rethought. “More than 80 percent of Spain’s fresh water is used for agriculture…it just doesn’t make sense,” Greenpeace’s Barea said.

According to him, it is necessary to drastically reduce the amount of land allocated for intensive farming if Spain wants to avoid a catastrophe. “Spain cannot be the garden of Europe if we have less and less water.”

© 2023 AFP

quotes: European Products at Stake in Spain’s Water War (2023 May 2), retrieved May 2, 2023 from

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