By John Vidal
22 July 22, 2005
could be the edge of the Sahara or even Death Valley, but it is actually
a large orchard near Cartagena in southern Spain. On one side of a farm
track the soil has broken down into fine white, lifeless sand and a
landscape of rock and dying trees stretches into the distance. On the
other side, miles of healthy trees are laden with grapefruit, lemons
and oranges, while the birds sing and flit in and out of the shadows.
The line between
desert and abundance in southern Spain is always fine, in this case
it is a 1in-thick black plastic pipe that drips water pumped from a
deep borehole via a reservoir to the base of some trees but not to others.
Senor Lorenzo, who last year farmed 400 hectares (1,000 acres), decided
to cut off the water supply to 15,000 trees earlier this year when he
was told his annual allocation of water had been heavily cut. He now
farms 200 hectares.
He tips backs his hat and mops his brow in the scorching 42C heat of
the mid-afternoon. "What can I do?" he asks. His reservoir
is nearly empty, he has no right to more water until next year, he has
had to sack all but two of his north African immigrant workers, and
soon he will join neighbouring fruit farmers in cutting down and burning
his dead trees. He reckons the company that owns the farm will lose
millions of euros this year.
"This is is
as close to a disaster as you can get," he says. "Everyone
round here is more or less in the same situation. We have not seen anything
like this before."
Much of western
Europe and northern Africa will understand Lorenzo's point of view.
Thanks to what meteorologists call "unusual" climatic circumstances,
including freak rain which ran off the land without replenishing the
water tables, much of Europe is now bone-dry, dun-brown and baking.
There has been barely any steady rain for a year or more in many places
and it's dawning on the EU and the authorities of half a dozen countries
that this pan-European phenomenon will affect everyone and could well
continue into next year.
Alarm bells are
ringing. In France last week, the environment minister Nelly Olin called
the situation "very tense and fragile", as more than half
the country's departments put restrictions on water use and the government
considered closing some nuclear and hydroelectric plants; the Portuguese
government has declared that 97% of of the country is experiencing "severe"
drought conditions and yesterday said that it may declare a public disaster;
the EU, meanwhile, says that cereal production will fall by more than
20m tonnes this year.
Droughts are common
in southern Europe and north Africa, but this year's is thought to be
the most intense since records began about 60 years ago. People are
reportedly migrating from the parched countryside to the cities of Tunisia
and Morocco, and in central Spain, where 11 firefighters died trying
to control one of hundreds of wildfires last week, the government is
drilling emergency boreholes for some areas and considering emergency
desalination plants in others. In milder, less-affected southern Britain,
more domestic hosepipe bans are expected in the next few weeks.
The drought of 2005
is already raising food prices, causing unemployment and will cost billions
of euros' compensation and economic losses; but it is also leading to
calls for gargantuan water transfer plans, new reservoirs and dams.
As cities vie with farmers for a resource that is only going to become
scarcer if droughts like this become more common, scientists and politicians
are saying that a complete rethink is needed over how Europe uses its
more water. Industry, farming, householders. We all want golf courses,
showers, swimming pools, gardens. If it goes on, I don't know what will
happen," says Maria Carol, a Portuguese forester working at the
University of Lisbon. "The good thing about this drought is that
for the first time ever there is a real awareness of water."
southern Europe this week has been confusing, with communities showing
far from uniform responses to the drought. In Portugal, one village
may have gushing water and no restrictions imposed on it, the next may
be almost dry with water "police" making sure no one is using
it in the daytime. About 25,000 rural people are now dependent on water
tankers for supply, yet few towns and tourist resorts seem to have been
affected at all.
The confusion extends
to nature itself. Some trees look green and thriving, but on closer
inspection are so stressed that they have stopped growing and may not
recover. Some lakes and reservoirs are down to 16% capacity, but others
are more than half full. In the cities, the reaction is even less certain.
A few municipalities have turned off their fountains and are rationing
water to a few hours a day. Some have banned people filling up swimming
pools - but because those with pools mostly filled them months ago,
you can still hear the sound of children splashing about even as the
television and radio exhort families to save water.
Indeed, it is quite
possible to be in one of the most drought-affected regions and find
nothing amiss at all. "I do know it has been dry and I noticed
that they did not water the flowerbeds this week, but apart from that
I haven't seen any signs of drought at all," says Carol James,
from the Wirral who has an apartment in La Manga resort village in southern
The 240,000 British
and foreign second-home owners on the Algarve and in southern Spain
seem totally oblivious to the drought. "It's been lovely weather
- but much hotter than we expected," says Mary, from Southend on
Sea, a resident at the 1,500-house Mosa Trajectum resort being built
around three 18-hole golf courses outside Murcia. "There are no
restrictions on the amount of water we use. We can have a bath every
day if we want. We pay for it by meter, mind."
a housewife from Murcia, privately blames the local economy's dependence
on tourism. "We have always been taught to use less water. We never
have baths, only showers. Water is much more expensive here than anywhere
else in Spain so we always use less. I don't think the tourists come
with the same knowledge. What we really fear is that the drought makes
people unemployed and that it will go on next year too. We depend completely
on farming and tourism."
Last week, Sra Vasquez
demonstrated with about 300,000 farmers and townspeople in Murcia for
more water to be transferred from central Spain, as promised by the
previous government but refused by the new one.
In fact, Murcia
already depends on water being transferred from elsewhere in Spain and
is now pumping vast quantities from underground aquifers. Yet just 25
years ago, says Pedro Cano, an agronomist with the regional government,
it was one of Spain's poorest and driest areas. But in 1979, a canal
was dug to allow millions of cubic metres of water a year to be imported
from the Tagus river basin and this stimulated one of the greatest explosions
of intensive farming ever seen in Europe. More than 100,000 hectares
are now farmed under plastic, mostly for British and German supermarkets.
Andres Garcia is
head of Fecoam, a local industry body which represents many of the region's
largest farmers. "We export about 1m tonnes of fruit and vegetables
a year, mostly to Britain and Germany," he says. "Because
we have far less water this year, it means that there will be fewer
melons, lettuces, broccoli, fruit, celery and tomatoes. We need more
water, otherwise the industry dies here."
a Spanish environmental activist living in London, puts it a different
way. "When you eat a Spanish watermelon or an iceberg lettuce in
Britain, you are really drinking our water," he says. "You
could say that your demand is partly responsible for our land turning
The big question
now is whether increasingly drought-prone countries such as Spain, Portugal
and France can go on using and wasting water the way they have done
for so long. Demand has been rising 8-10% a year for decades, doubling
every seven years or less. And while nearly 70% of the water has in
the past been harnessed to reap production subsidies under the CAP,
the fastest rising water demand is now for touristic urbanisation in
the coastal regions where water is often scarcest.
A quick trip up
the Coata Calida and east coast of Spain through the Murcia region shows
the scale of the problem. Spain built more than 700,000 new houses,
mostly for foreigners, last year and the Alicante-Almeria-Murcia area
is a forest of cranes, building sites, earthmovers and half-built golf
courses as global finance companies create what is being marketed as
"the new Florida" and the "Costa del Golf".
On one stretch of
coast alone there are billion-euro plans to build more than 100,000
holiday homes in the next 10 years, up to 1m more hotel beds, and dozens
of new tourist complexes, many the size of small British towns. Most
are planned to be set beside shimmering lakes and golf courses.
Golf and water are
the new twin keys to selling expensive second homes. According to brochures
being handed to holiday-makers in Spain and Portugal this week, a well-watered
course in a sports resort offers "nature", "beauty"
and "luxury" and is the "dream of the retired",
and an "idyllic lifestyle " - usually starting at about £180,000.
But, says Dutch
water engineer Robert Voogd, whose company installed a rare water conservation
system at Mosa Trajectum resort and is now saving up to 70% of the water
used on a normal golf course, one 18-hole course can use as much water
in a year as a town of 10,000 houses.
"You need about
nine litres of water per square metre per day to keep a fairway or tee
looking green, says Voogd. "As the average 18-hole course is about
360,000 square metres and needs watering about 300 days a year, it means
that they need a lot of cubic metres. You do the sums," he says.
More than 40 new golf courses are planned for the Murcia region alone
and as many again for Alicante and Almeria.
So what is the answer?
Water politics in Spain, Portugal and southern France is passionate
and complex and the drought has added a new urgency to a debate that
has been going on for generations. Regions with a surplus of water know
that they have a strong hand, while others, such as Murcia, have the
money but not the political backing to get the mega-water transfer projects
they see as essential to their future.
On the physical
level, it is clear that what water there is can be used far better.
Most of Europe, like Britain, has leaky pipes and wastes up to 30% of
the water collected. Inefficient farming and poor irrigation especially
are to blame.
"The only answer,"
says Manuel Campilho, a central-Portuguese beef and cork tree farmer,
is for more reservoirs to be built and more water to be piped or canalised
from areas with a lot of water to those with a little.
"We are all
taking more water than we should," says Pedro Cano of the Murcian
state government. "In some farming areas the water table has dropped
from 50m deep to 300m in about 20 years. The quality of the water is
now very bad, very salty, which is in turn leading to desertification.
It is a serious problem. We think it is getting worse every year because
we use far more water than we have the resources for. The answer is
to have different strategies - to bring more water in, to use desalination
and also to save water."
But others say that
the urbanisation and intensive farming cannot continue. "No water
transfer can give us sustainable use. It only moves the problem to somewhere
else. We have to reduce what we use or cut back the areas that we irrigate.
We have to stop illegal boreholes, and allow developments in fragile
areas," says Guido Schmidt, of WWF in Madrid.
corruption and there were illegal boreholes. I don't think there are
any now, but if we find them we concrete them up," says Cano. "The
fact is that we are all overusing water. There is a limit to how much
water can be taken from underground aquifers and we are there,"
What frightens people
across Europe most is that this year could be just the start of a much
longer drought, like the one Spain experienced in the 1990s. What is
more, climate change - which the European Environment Agency says will
raise temperatures by 2-3 degrees Celsius over the next 75 years - will
bring deeper droughts and heatwaves, water shortages, forest fires and
will all get through this year," says Campilho. "It's what
happens to the rains in the autumn and next year that really matters
now. We have choices to make. We have all seen the future. If we don't
act soon, it could be a real disaster."
It's all part of
a natural cycle
The droughts in
Europe may be shocking and they are predicted to carry on into next
year. But, according to climate experts, they are the result of natural
climate cycles and not global warming.
severe to moderate droughts affecting all of Portugal, Spain and southern
France, northern Italy, Austria, Hungary and the northern parts of the
former Yugoslavia," says Mark Saunders, head of climate prediction
at the department of space and climate physics at University College
A drought classed
as "severe" is one expected to reoccur once every 10 years,
whereas an "exceptional" drought should only happen once every
40 years. In the UK, the south-east is also on the verge of drought,
but ours will be a "moderate"- class event, expected to occur
once every five years.
It is tempting to
link the droughts to the recent hot weather across Europe but, while
the weather will have exacerbated the effects of the water shortage,
it is certainly not the root cause.
The real reason
for the drought is essentially a lack of rainfall over the past nine
months. In winter and spring, most reservoirs get replenished, but in
the UK, for example, the past six months have seen barely two-thirds
of the average expected rainfall.
says that the current situation is a result of natural climate variability.
Drought trends going back more than 100 years show this sort of natural
cycle repeating itself time and again. He also rules out global warming
as a contributing factor since it is expected to cause wetter winters.
The situation across
Europe is unlikely to alleviate until the autumn, says Saunders. "The
drought won't be alleviated until at least September or October,"
he says. "We do need two or three months of good rainfall to bring
things back to normal."
The only long-range
forecast is from scientists at the Met Office, which runs models of
a weather system called the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). This system
is strongly linked to winter temperatures and rainfall. The Met Office
is currently predicting that this year we will see a negative NAO-index
winter, which means a colder, drier December for the UK and most of
Europe. "If that forecast is correct, that would suggest these
drought conditions would persist into next year," says Saunders.
· The writer
is the Guardian's science correspondent.