[Marxism] In Spain, Water Is a New Battleground
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jun 3 10:44:27 MDT 2008
NY Times, June 3, 2008
In Spain, Water Is a New Battleground
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
FORTUNA, Spain — Lush fields of lettuce and hothouses of tomatoes line
the roads. Verdant new developments of plush pastel vacation homes
beckon buyers from Britain and Germany. Golf courses — dozens of them,
all recently built — give way to the beach. At last, this hardscrabble
corner of southeast Spain is thriving.
There is only one problem with the picture of bounty: this province,
Murcia, is running out of water. Swaths of southeast Spain are steadily
turning into desert, a process spurred on by global warming and poorly
Murcia, traditionally a poor farming region, has undergone a
resort-building boom in recent years, even as many of its farmers have
switched to more thirsty crops, encouraged by water transfer plans,
which have become increasingly untenable. The combination has put new
pressures on the land and its dwindling supply of water.
This year, farmers are fighting developers over water rights. They are
fighting one another over who gets to water their crops. And in a sign
of their mounting desperation, they are buying and selling water like
gold on a rapidly growing black market, mostly from illegal wells.
Southern Spain has long been plagued by cyclical droughts, but the
current crisis, scientists say, probably reflects a more permanent
climate change brought on by global warming. And it is a harbinger of a
new kind of conflict.
The battles of yesterday were fought over land, they warn. Those of the
present center on oil. But those of the future — a future made hotter
and drier by climate change in much of the world — seem likely to focus
on water, they say.
“Water will be the environmental issue this year — the problem is urgent
and immediate,” said Barbara Helferrich, a spokeswoman for the European
Union’s Environment Directorate. “If you already have water shortages in
spring, you know it’s going to be a really bad summer.”
Dozens of world leaders will be meeting at the United Nations Food and
Agriculture Organization headquarters in Rome starting Tuesday to
address a global food crisis caused in part by water shortages in
Africa, Australia and here in southern Spain.
Climate change means that creeping deserts may eventually drive 135
million people off their land, the United Nations estimates. Most of
them are in the developing world. But Southern Europe is experiencing
the problem now, its climate drying to the point that it is becoming
more like Africa’s, scientists say.
For Murcia, the arrival of the water crisis has been accelerated by
developers and farmers who have hewed to water-hungry ventures highly
unsuited to a drier, warmer climate: crops like lettuce that need ample
irrigation, resorts that promise a swimming pool in the yard, acres of
freshly sodded golf courses that sop up millions of gallons a day.
“I come under a lot of pressure to release water from farmers and also
from developers,” said Antonio Pérez Gracia, the water manager here in
Fortuna, sipping coffee with farmers in a bar in the town’s dusty
square. He rued the fact that he could provide each property owner with
only 30 percent of its government-determined water allotment.
“I’m not sure what we’ll do this summer,” he added, noting that the
local aquifer was sinking so quickly that the pumps would not reach it
soon. “I come under a lot of pressure to release water, from farmers and
also from developers. They can complain as much as they want, but if
there’s no more water, there’s no more water.”
Rubén Vives, a farmer who relies on Mr. Pérez Gracia’s largess, said he
could not afford the black market water prices. “This year, my
livelihood is in danger,” said Mr. Vives, who has farmed low-water crops
like lemons here for nearly two decades.
The hundreds of thousands of wells — most of them illegal — that have in
the past provided a temporary reprieve from thirst have depleted
underground water to the point of no return. Water from northern Spain
that was once transferred here has also slowed to a trickle, as wetter
northern provinces are drying up, too.
The scramble for water has set off scandals. Local officials are in
prison for taking payoffs to grant building permits in places where
there is not adequate water. Chema Gil, a journalist who exposed one
such scheme, has been subject to death threats, carries pepper spray and
is guarded day and night by the Guardia Civil, a police force with
military and civilian functions.
“The model of Murcia is completely unsustainable,” Mr. Gil said. “We
consume two and a half times more water than the system can recover. So
where do you get it? Import it from elsewhere? Dry up the aquifer? With
climate change we’re heading into a cul-de-sac. All the water we’re
using to water lettuce and golf courses will be needed just to drink.”
Facing a national crisis, Spain has become something of an unwitting
laboratory, sponsoring a European conference on water issues this summer
and announcing a national action plan this year to fight
desertification. That plan includes a shift to more efficient methods of
irrigation, as well as an extensive program of desalinization plants to
provide the fresh water that nature does not.
The Spanish Environment Ministry estimates that one-third of the county
is at risk of turning into desert from a combination of climate change
and poor land use.
Still, national officials visibly stiffen when asked about the
“Africanization” of Spain’s climate — a term now common among scientists.
“We are in much better shape than Africa, but within the E.U. our
situation is serious,” said Antonio Serrano Rodríguez, the secretary
general for land and biodiversity at Spain’s Environment Ministry.
Still, Mr. Serrano and others acknowledge the broad outlines of the
problem. “There will be places that can’t be farmed any more, that were
marginal and are now useless,” Mr. Serrano said. “We have parts of the
country that are close to the limit.”
While southern Spain has always been dry and plagued by cyclical
droughts, the average surface temperature in Spain has risen 2.7 degrees
compared with about 1.4 degrees globally since 1880, records show.
Rainfall here is predicted to fall 20 percent from this year to 2020,
and 40 percent by 2070, according to United Nations projections.
The changes on the Almarcha family farm in Albanilla over the past three
decades are a testament to that hotter, drier climate here. Until two
decades ago, the farm grew wheat and barley, watered only by rain. As
rainfall dropped, Carlo Almarcha, 51, switched to growing almonds.
About 10 years ago, he quit almonds and changed to organic peaches and
pears, “since they need less water,” he explained. Recently he took up
olives and figs, “which resist drought and are less sensitive to weather.”
Mr. Almarcha participates in a government water trading system, started
last year, in which farmers pay three times the normal price — 33 cents
instead of 12 per cubic meter — to get extra water. The black market
rate is even higher. Still, his outlook is bleak.
“You used to know that this week in spring there will be rain,” he said,
standing in his work boots on parched soil of an olive grove that was
once a wheat field. “Now you never know when or if it will come. Also,
there’s no winter any more and plants need cold to rest. So there’s less
growth. Sometimes none. Even plants all seem confused.”
While Mr. Almarcha has gradually moved toward less thirsty crops, the
government’s previous water transfer plans have moved many farmers in
the opposite direction. The farmers have shifted to producing a wide
range of water-hungry fruits and vegetables that had never been grown in
the south. Murcia is traditionally known for figs and date palms.
“You can’t grow strawberries naturally in Huelva — it’s too hot,” said
Raquel Montón, a climate specialist at Greenpeace in Madrid, referring
to the nearby strawberry capital of Spain. “In Sarragosa, which is a
desert, we grow corn, the most water-thirsty crop. It’s insane. The only
thing that would be more insane is putting up casinos and golf courses.”
Which, of course, Murcia has.
In 2001, a new land use law in Murcia made it far easier for residents
to sell land for resort development. Though southern Spain has long had
elaborate systems for managing its relatively scarce water, today
everyone, it seems, has found ways to get around them.
Grass on golf courses or surrounding villas is sometimes labeled a
“crop,” making owners eligible for water that would not be allocated to
keep leisure space green. Foreign investors plant a few trees and call
their vacation homes “farms” so they are eligible for irrigation water,
Mr. Pérez Gracia said.
“Once a property owner’s got a water allotment, he asks for a change of
land use,” he explained. “Then he’s got his property and he’s got his
water. It’s supposed to be for irrigation, but people use it for what
they want. No one knows if it goes to a swimming pool.”
While he said his “heart goes out to the real farmers,” he did not have
the personnel to monitor how people use their allotments.
With so much money to be made, officials set aside laws and policies
that might encourage sustainable development, Mr. Gil, the journalist,
said. At first, he was vilified in the community when he wrote articles
critical of the developments. Recently, as people are discovering that
the water is running out, the attitude is shifting.
But even so, people and politicians tend to regard water as a limitless
resource. “Politicians think in four-year blocks, so it’s O.K. as long
as it doesn’t run out on their watch,” said Ms. Montón of Greenpeace.
“People think about it, but they don’t really think about what happens
tomorrow. They don’t worry until they turn on the tap and nothing flows.”
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