‘Farmers are digging their very own graves’: true value of rising meals in Spain’s arid south


A wetland with out water is a melancholy sight. The fish are useless, the birds have flown and a dull silence hangs over the place. “Every little thing you see round try to be underneath water,” says Ecologists in Motion’s Rafa Gosálvez from the lookout in Las Tablas de Daimiel nationwide park. The park has been dry for 3 years and the place there have been as soon as aquatic species akin to geese, herons, egrets and freshwater crayfish, in addition to tree frogs and the European polecat, now the wildlife has principally vanished.

Las Tablas de Daimiel is a novel wetland within the huge, virtually treeless plains of Castilla-La Mancha in central Spain. However the park has had the life sucked out of it to slake intensive agriculture’s insatiable thirst.

Sixty-seven per cent of the water utilized in Spain goes to agriculture, in line with the OECD, however this rises to as a lot as 85-90% within the south-east, says Julia Martínez-Fernández, technical director of the New Water Culture Foundation, which promotes the sustainable use of water.

Frequent cranes fly over Las Tablas de Daimiel. {Photograph}: Beldad/EPA-EFE

Las Tablas’ ecosystem depends on water from rainfall, the Guadiana river and an enormous aquifer, however the local weather disaster has resulted in Spain’s intervals of drought getting longer. The Guadiana is drying up, whereas agriculture has depleted the aquifer and polluted the groundwater with phosphates and different chemical fertilisers. In 2009, the wetland was so dry that subterranean peat fires broke out.

The three,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of Las Tablas are all that stay of what, in line with the World Wildlife Fund, was once a system of fifty,000 hectares of wetland in Castilla-La Mancha.

Gosálvez says the water wanted to irrigate Castilla-La Mancha’s vines, olives, pistachios, onions and melons exceeds out there assets and wanting a run of a number of years of heavy rain, the wetland can solely be saved by transferring water from the Tagus river – besides the Tagus is overexploited and almost dried up four years ago.

A lot of the issue dates from the Seventies, when the Spanish authorities launched into a plan to show Murcia and Almería within the south-east into Europe’s market backyard. The plan had one main flaw: there was no water.

Spain’s south-east is arid and not one of the nation’s three main rivers flows close to it. The Douro and Tagus each rise in north-central Spain and circulation west into the Atlantic at, respectively, Porto and Lisbon, whereas the Ebro rises within the north-west and empties into the Mediterranean almost 400km (250 miles) north of Murcia.

The answer was to switch water from the headwaters of the Tagus by means of virtually 300km of pipeline to irrigate the barren south.

Nonetheless, relatively than fulfill demand, the switch has served to incentivise unsustainable intensive agriculture that has led to the exploitation of groundwater, with disastrous environmental penalties.

The spectacle this summer season of thousands of dead fish floating within the Mar Menor, a saltwater lagoon in Murcia as soon as recognized for its crystal-clear waters, was the results of fertiliser polluting the groundwater that drains into the ocean. The nitrates set off huge algae blooms that deprive the fish of oxygen.

“The Mar Menor catastrophe is the results of intensive agriculture which continues to develop in a way that isn’t sustainable, each in Murcia and in lots of different components of Spain,” says Martínez-Fernández.

Birds flock at sunset over Las Tablas de Daimiel.
Pockets of water seen in Las Tablas de Daimiel in 2020 after emergency wells have been opened to stop fires breaking out. {Photograph}: Beldad/EPA-EFE

Neighbouring Almería – the place the greenhouses making up the famous “sea of plastic” are seen from house – produces an estimated 3.5m tonnes of peppers, tomatoes, cucumber and melons a 12 months. Along with Granada, it provides about 50% of the European market. Yearly Almería also produces thousands of tonnes of plastic waste, a lot of which results in the ocean.

The Tagus water switch is just not sufficient to fulfill the rising calls for of agriculture in Almería, nonetheless. Over the previous 40 years the quantity of water that reaches the Tagus headwaters has fallen by about 40% in line with estimates, and is continuous to fall. So Almería is more and more reliant on desalinated seawater for irrigation.

In an try to take care of the issue, in 1985 the Spanish authorities introduced in a brand new water law to control its use. Nevertheless it was compelled to concede that anybody who had a effectively or entry to water had the appropriate to take advantage of it.

Right this moment, the federal government recognises that the scenario is unsustainable. Teresa Ribera, minister for ecological transition, is underneath strain for Spain to evolve to European standards on water quality and amount that come into pressure in 2027, and is aware of this could solely be achieved by decreasing irrigation.

In presenting the nation’s five-year water plan, Ribera recognised that water assets are in decline and components of Spain face desertification.

“On this context, water plans can’t proceed to assist the form of practices which have led to the overexploitation of aquifers, the contamination of groundwater and the deterioration of our rivers,” she stated.

Though agriculture solely accounts for about 3% of GDP and 4% of jobs, the farming business has appreciable political clout. When Ribera introduced reductions within the quantity of water that might be transferred from the Tagus, there was an outcry from farmers.

Lucas Jiménez, president of an affiliation of farmers that rely upon the switch, warned Ribera “faces a battle within the courts and within the streets”.

“The issue is that the answer to the water subject will put any authorities in battle with quite a few sectors akin to agriculture, hydroelectricity and property builders,” says Miguel Ángel Sánchez, a spokesperson for the Platform in Defence of the Tagus.

“Madrid is aware of this could’t go on, however they gained’t take the bull by the horns and it’s the regional governments which have authority over water,” says Gosálvez.

A lagoon in Las Tablas de Daimiel remains dry even after the rainy season.
Las Tablas de Daimiel stays dry even after the wet season. {Photograph}: Nacho Calonge/Alamy

He says the EU’s frequent agriculture coverage is partly responsible for encouraging intensive farming that’s each environmentally damaging and wasteful, main farmers to dump produce to keep up costs.

“The EU pays farmers to plant extra, resulting in overproduction with the outcome that the market worth barely covers the price of manufacturing,” he says.

“We have to get up to actuality, there may be merely not sufficient water to fulfill the demand for irrigation. The farmers are digging their very own graves.”

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