Farmers fight drought with move to digital age

21st August 2007, Comments 0 comments

21 August 2007, ALBERIQUE - For decades, Alberto Martorell has been irrigating his orange and persimmon groves in this sweltering corner of eastern Spain by a method unchanged since the age of the Moorish invaders _ swamping them under a flood of water from the local canal.

21 August 2007

ALBERIQUE - For decades, Alberto Martorell has been irrigating his orange and persimmon groves in this sweltering corner of eastern Spain by a method unchanged since the age of the Moorish invaders _ swamping them under a flood of water from the local canal.

But those days may be coming to an end. Martorell is one of a growing number of Spanish farmers who have signed up to go digital _ agreeing to switch to drip irrigation and connect their fields to a national grid monitored from Madrid.

The idea is to save money _ and equally important in an era of global warming _ precious water. Officials say the system could end up saving 20 percent of the water Spain uses for irrigation today _ a whopping 1.3 trillion gallons of water per year.

It is a major milestone for a country that is one of Europe's breadbaskets but has been relying on a system the Moors introduced more than a thousand years ago.

"We're jumping from the 13th century to the 21st century," said Juan Valero, the secretary general of Spain's irrigation farmers' federation, called Fenacore.

While computer-assisted irrigation is not new, Spain believes that no other country is as yet organizing it at a national level. So far 200,000 farmers have signed up for the project, Valero says. By 2010, they hope that number rises to 500,000, representing the vast majority of the irrigation farmers in Spain.

Valero said that years of chronic drought coupled with vastly increased water use has worn down any resistance to the changes. The government is chipping in, paying all the costs of the system right up to where it reaches each farmers' land.

Martorell, a stocky, sun-beaten 50-year-old, admits that his main motivation for making the switch was money, not becoming part of any green revolution.

"The methods we have been using are obsolete," he said, standing amid a field of persimmon trees. "New technology allows you to save time, improve harvests and most importantly, save water, which is the principal problem we have nowadays."

His land's irrigation system is in the process of being modernized, and he hopes to have it completed within three years.

Under the project, Fenacore is encouraging farmers not just to move away from wasteful flood irrigation systems, but also to lay highly efficient telecommunications cables alongside main water conduits.

The telecommunications cables will be connected to computer centers regionally and nationally from where the irrigation grid can be monitored, with screens showing which land is getting water, how much, when and at what pressure.

"Instead of manually lifting sluice gates to flood fields, farmers will be able to do it from laptops or even mobile phones," said Valero. "The aim is to manage water better. We have to rationalize its consumption, and to do this information is fundamental."

The endeavor represents a revolution in a country that is 50 percent arid and devotes up to 70 percent of its water resources to irrigation, the most in Europe.

But much of its system of channeling water from rivers for miles and miles is based on an intricate grid of open canals first developed by the Arab invaders.

Such was the influence of the Moors that nearly every Spanish word dealing with irrigation and water stems from Arabic, such as 'acequia' for irrigation ditch, or 'alcantarilla' for a drain.

Although many of the Arab-styled watering ditches have been replaced with closed concrete piping, especially over the past century, many of the original open channels can still be seen crisscrossing the lush fields of southern and eastern Spain.

But these systems lose millions of gallons (liters) through evaporation, poor maintenance and run-offs, something a country just emerging from drought caused by the lowest annual rainfall on record cannot afford.

Spain's profligate water usage has long concerned experts and conservationists.

The country is estimated to lose more than 60 percent of its water before it reaches the tap and only 1.5 percent is recycled.

In addition, Spain's never-ending construction boom _ with sprawling urban projects, mushrooming tourist complexes and golf courses _ has increased demand for a dwindling asset.

"Spain is finally bringing itself up to date in terms of irrigation," said Manuel Ramon Llamas, a professor at Madrid's Complutense University and one of Spain's leading water experts.

[Copyright AP with Expatica]

Subject: Spanish news

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