Water shortages start to bite after four-year drought

15th February 2008, Comments 0 comments

Desalination plants fill gap but come at a high cost

15 February 2008

MADRID - Spain is currently going through its fourth consecutive year of drought. The year 2007 saw 20 percent less rainfall than the average over the last 30 years, and water levels in reservoirs are the lowest in the last 10 years. Now in mid-winter reserves are not rising, and half of Spain has imposed restrictions to avoid shortages of drinking water in the summer.

For now, it is the farming community which is bearing the brunt of the drought. The president of the Federation of Irrigating Communities, Andrés del Campo, says that "there are areas where all the effort goes into saving the fruit trees. In other areas, cereals that grow in uncultivated land are going to be planted, and in some places, such as Guadalquivir, they are delaying the commissions for the use of reservoir water to see if it rains. If it doesn't, I don't know what we'll do."

Daniel Martínez is a 45-year-old part-time farmer. In Dolores, Alicante, he is growing artichokes and broccoli. Because of the drought, over the last few years the water has not arrived. A drought decree, approved by the regional government, has reduced water resources by nearly half. Before, he had 5,000 cubic metres of water per year per hectare - now he doesn't even get 3,000.

The situation would have been a catastrophe were it not for the 160 well perforations that were carried out by the Segura Confederation along the river bed. "Here, in the lower part of the river [almost in the river mouth], the water is low quality and has excessive levels of salt," says Martínez. "So we cannot plan what we're going to plant for next season."

Irrigators in Segura are in a similar position, with just 3,500 cubic metres per hectare per year, when the normal amount is 5,500. To ease the situation, they want to buy water from irrigators in Madrid and have it sent down via the Tajo-Segura waterway. However, the Popular Party-controlled regional government is opposed to the plan, as is that of Castilla-La Mancha.

That said, there are those who haven't yet noticed the effects of the drought. The water commissioner of the Segura Confederation, Manuel Aldeguer, admits that this is the "driest year in the 78 for which we have data." But the supply is guaranteed by wells that provide 123.8 hectometres each year (a hectometre is about the volume of a soccer stadium).

Of the 226 hectometres used by the Canal Mancomunidad of Taibilla, which supplies drinking water to 79 municipalities in Alicante and Murcia, 60 come from desalination plants. "Without them and the wells, we would have been close to disaster," says Aldeguer, pointing out that the Segura river has dried up in several places.

Some 27 percent of the water consumed by the 2.5 million people supplied in Taibilla comes from three desalination plants. "They have allowed us to end the deficit of resources that has befallen us since 2000," says Isidoro Carrillo, president of the Mancomunidad. He says that, in spite of the drought, "the resources we've been assigned just about exceed the demand."

But guaranteeing water with desalination plants costs money. The price of water has risen 40 percent in four years, but with the plants, the ministry is hoping to "strengthen" the Mediterranean coast so it doesn't have to depend on rain or waterways.

Shortages still exist though: Catalonia is expecting to receive water in cargo ships this summer direct from the Carboneras desalination plant, and has limited the use of water not intended for human consumption.

[Copyright EL PAÍS / EZEQUIEL MOLTÓ 2008]

Subject: Spanish news

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