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Spanish Sahara

Forty years ago the Spanish were still claiming the western half of the Sahara and fighting to keep a hold of that territory. It was not to be – they lost the land – but the way things are going they need no longer feel aggrieved by the loss. The Sahara desert is now all set to hop across the Straits and occupy Southern Spain.

Map of SpainIf Spain, to you, means nothing more than lying by the seaside, soaking up the UV, then you probably won’t be too concerned to read that one third of the country is in immediate danger of desertification. For the rest of us, and for the Spanish themselves, the prospect is alarming. Essentially, it means that 30 % of the country is about to become unusable. The existence of 30 % of the greenery and a frighteningly large number of bird and animal species is critically endangered by the simple lack of life’s number one prerequisite: water. In fact, that figure is reckoned by some to be conservative. According to some estimates, as much as 60 % of the country is in danger of becoming a barren, sandy wasteland.

And who is to blame for this dismal state of affair? Well, indirectly we are all guilty; we have all been taking part in the great global binge, using fossil fuels at such a rate that we fill the sky with carbon gases and upset the balance of the world’s climate. Yes, global warming is partly to blame – but that is only half the story. The inevitable trend has been greatly speeded and vastly exacerbated by short-sighted greed. Investors and developers aiming to get rich quick are doing so at the expense of the land and the landscape, and at the expense of the nation as a whole. The principal culprits in the desertification scenario are the holiday apartment industry and the market gardeners.

Spain has the third highest rate of water consumption, per capita, in the world. Naturally, this is not because the Spanish people drink a lot of water; on the contrary, brandy and wine are the Spaniard’s preferred tipples. Nor are the Iberians obsessed with bathing and showering; their household water consumption figures are little different from those of any other European nation. The fact of the matter is that most of the water consumed in this land is just poured onto the ground.

80 % of the water is used to grow food. If you want to grow food in an arid country then, obviously, you have to irrigate – but the quantity of water being used for this purpose is vastly exaggerated, because the amount of food being grown is out of all proportion to the Spanish population. Very little of the food is eaten locally. Most of the water is used on the wheat and soya fields which line the motorways, on the fruit farms which reach from one horizon to the other, and – in particular – on the unbelievably vast horticultural gardens of Andalusia and Murcia.
By far the greater part of this crop goes north, out of Spain. The UK imports all manner of vegetables; olives, in the form of olive oil; huge quantities of oranges; almonds and almond products; and vast quantities of soft fruit. Indeed, Britain imports such a large share of the Spanish soft fruit crop that in the summer of 2007 farmers here in Spain had to dump most of their harvest. The British summer was so cold and wet that year that nobody wanted to eat plums and peaches! The buyers stopped importing the fruit, and the farmers were left with nowhere to sell their wares.

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the north-east – not “on the plain” – and in that region there is little or no need to irrigate. Thus, it is clear that the figure of 80% is distorted. The truth of the matter is that in the southern regions, of Andalusia and Murcia, even more than 80 % of the water is being spent on growing food. Here, the main produce is salad vegetables – tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces, artichokes, peppers, and other thirsty crops. And again, most of these vegetables are destined to travel more than one thousand miles north to sit on the shelves of Tesco and Sainsbury’s, and in the salad bowls of the Great British population.

“Plastic Ponds” near the Mar MenorThese salad vegetables are grown in an entirely artificial environment. Often they do not even sit on the soil; like critically ill patients in a hospital ward, they receive the necessary nutrients in a fluid form, in carefully measured doses. Nor does the wind ever ruffle their leaves. Some lie beneath plastic sheets, which paint long white stripes across the naked earth. Others, such as the tomatoes and cucumbers, grow in huge polythene greenhouses. Whole cities of these greenhouses have grown up in south-eastern Spain.

Arriving off Almeria, some four years ago, we were puzzled by the appearance of the coast. It seemed to be covered in snow. Clearly, that could not be the case – the temperature was in the eighties – and so we wondered whether the whole area was devoted to salt production. This idea made a lot of sense – because, after all, Almeria is the driest place in the whole of Europe and thus would be ideally suited to that activity – but it was evidently not the true answer; the vast white field extended up the lower slopes of the distant mountains, and you cannot build a salt-pan on a slope. We puzzled away, but were unable to solve the mystery. Later we discovered that we had been looking at the infamous “Mar Plastico”, or Plastic Sea. This corner of Spain is entirely covered in polythene; one can drive for an hour and see nothing but tacky polythene-clad greenhouses on either side of the road.


The creation of this hideous plastic-wrapped garden has inevitably necessitated the removal of all other flora. Plants which had evolved to cope with the arid conditions have been grubbed out on a gigantic scale – and with them went the lizards and birds and any other wildlife suited to such an environment. Worse yet, the indigenous flora and fauna are not even being given the chance to live on the few remaining patches of “wasteland”. The water needed to grow the salad veg is sucked up out of the ground through numerous boreholes. (There are an estimated 510,000 boreholes in Spain.) Plainly, water in the ground is a finite resource, and if you suck it all up and give it to the thirsty hot-house plants there is none left in the soil for anything else. The plants which coped so well with a little water now receive none – and so they die.

Not that there was much “wasteland” left to the wild plants anyway. Spain has many wonderful national parks, where man is forbidden to interfere with nature – at least in theory – but very few of the parks are in the south-east. An unbelievable 96 % of the province of Almeria has been cleared of indigenous vegetation. This part of Spain has always been arid. Hundreds of years ago the Arabs and their peasant subjects were already lifting water from below the ground, using animal-driven “water-wheels of blood”. It is the scale of the thing which has changed. Throughout the past centuries this region has supported a fragile ecosystem. But in the course of the last ten years, man, through his blind greed, has transformed this little corner into one of the ugliest places on the planet.

Even that is not the end of the story, because the vast white carpet spread over the land has the effect of inhibiting rainfall. This is partly because the polythene traps the moisture – as is its purpose – but also because a white surface prevents air convection. Without air convection there can be no clouds, and without clouds… no rain. The clearing of the land was the first step on the swift journey towards desertification, for plant growth encourages rainfall, whereas clearances encourage drought.

The Fringe-Fingered Lizard. One of the many animals which have evolved to cope with the arid conditions.Think about it: the driest place in the whole of Europe has been selected for the cultivation of our salad vegetables. How stupid can you get? Twenty or thirty years ago English tomato growers invented a slogan to protect their market: “If it’s Dutch, don’t touch”, they told us. Perhaps now we should all be chanting a new mantra: “If it’s Spanish, it’ll vanish”. If we keep on buying Spanish salad vegetables, the bottom third of the country will vanish into the desert.

Vegetables are not the only crop threatening to destroy Southern Spain. Strawberries are another problem. The early season strawberries which find their way onto our supermarket shelves are grown in Western Andalusia, in the neighbourhood of the Donaña National Park. When we eat them we are consuming water which ought properly to be flowing through the wetlands. Since the strawberry growers began sponging the water from the soil the marshes have become noticeably less marshy – and environmentalists have become increasingly anxious. The wetlands shelter thousands of migratory birds, which would otherwise have nowhere to feed, and their preservation is vital to the survival of various endangered species.

As if this were not enough, the arid soil of Southern Spain is being assaulted from another direction: the construction industry is also making heavy demands on the meagre water reserves. No, holiday apartment blocks don’t soak up water. The apartment tenants use it, of course, but not in significant quantities. The big consumer of water, so far as this sector is concerned, is the golf course.

For some reason, holiday apartments are easier to sell, and go for higher prices, if they are associated with a golf course. And golf courses drink up ludicrous amounts of water. In a region where rainfall is low and summer rainfall more or less non-existent, the greens require to be watered virtually non-stop. Don’t let anyone kid you that they use recycled water. Recycled water is reckoned to be good enough for the date palms and other (non-indigenous) plants which ornament the verges, but only pure water is good enough to achieve the billiard table finish on the lawn. Nor should we be satisfied when the developers tell us, “It’s okay; we’ve dug our own boreholes.” As we have seen, boreholes just rob the surrounding countryside of water and deny the stuff of life to the local flora.

Natural cover in Spain´s arid south-eastSpain already has 340 golf courses, the vast majority of which are situated in the arid south. According to Greenpeace España, there are almost as many again under construction or in the planning stage. In a country with insufficient rain to grow grass, these developments are as destructive and unsustainable as the felling of the rainforest. Millions are made by the unscrupulous few who invest in the construction of the properties, but the land is suffering through their greed, and the people who buy the ticky-tacky houses are likely to suffer too, in the long run. When the drought hits hard, the taps will be turned off, and the felt-green oases will wither in the hot sun – and the value of the properties will come crashing down.

The Spanish don’t actually play golf. Immensely tolerant of foreigners, they are, nevertheless, beginning to get a bit fed up with the game. They scorn the idea of living in an artificial oasis, and they resent the waste of precious water. Don’t get me wrong; nobody has anything against golf, as such – but just don’t come and play it here, please. And just don’t put your money into one of these ridiculous golf-resorts.

Falling water level in a resevoir in Northern SpainBecause of the over-development of the region, the plight of Southern Spain is now affecting the country as a whole – and I don’t just mean emotionally or economically; the south is now bleeding dry the regions further north. In the area around La Manga, where golf courses and market gardens are both prolific, people happily and naïvely tell us, “Water is not really a problem because we can bring it by tanker from the reservoirs in Madrid.” Needless to say, such talk does not impress the Madrileños!

In the interior of Murcia, the wine growers are up in arms. Drought makes for dehydrated grapes and for a reduced alcohol content to the finished product. One vineyard in Jumilla has decided to try a pragmatic approach: they are now producing a “slimmers’ wine”, with an alcohol content of only 6 ½ percent. Meanwhile, in Barcelona the problem has been turned on its head. Here, the demand for water is leading to the gradual desiccation and destruction of the famous Ebro river delta. Like the Donaña, this is a National Park and an important refuge for tens of thousands of water birds. To cope with the area’s increasing need Barcelona is constructing a desalination plant, but since this is not yet open for business there is talk, in the interim, of importing water from the desalination plant in – yes, you’ve guessed it – drought-stricken Almeria!

Jan 2007, Embalsa de Yesa. A year later, the level is even lower.Water and where to find it is one of the biggest issues in the current national elections in Spain. The Partido Popular (somewhat to the right of the British Conservatives) is perfectly content to suck dry the Rio Ebro, piping the water south to the soon-to-be desert. The current government is run by the Partido Socialista Obrero Español , or PSOE (who are somewhat to the left of Britain’s New Labour). Their solution to the water crisis is to build desalination plants, and so increase the amount of water available. It looks like a good plan – certainly, it is a better plan than the PP’s crazy idea – but giant watermakers also bring with them certain environmental problems. For a start, they use a lot of fuel. Secondly, they entail the dumping, in the waters local to the plant, of extremely saline, relatively warm water. Spain already comes fourth in the international desalination statistics – only Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and the USA produce more desalinated water – and some environmentalists claim that flora and fauna in the vicinity of the plants is already being affected. Perhaps they’ll just have to pump the brine into pans and turn the Costa into the world’s biggest sea salt factory…

Beautiful Zahara in July 2007. It is now more than half empty.In 2005 Spain suffered its worst drought for 60 years. Three years on, the rainfall figures are even lower; the reservoirs all across the country are less than half full. Some say that Iberia is enduring the worst drought since records began.

But still the developments continue – there is a new golf resort under construction just along the road from La Manga – and still the hideous Mar Plastico sucks up the lifeblood of the whole country. The nation is getting rich, but the land is getting poorer and poorer.

How long can things continue before the bubble bursts and the boom goes phut?
Not long, I think.

(Information derived from various sources, including Medio Ambiente Murcia, The Olive Press, and www.iberianature.com.)

One Comment

  1. Am stunned by this why do the media not push this destruction home to a sllepy world!- why do people not wake up they are to caught up in there small world uninterested in the devastation around them

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