quotWithout water we are nothingquot In Spain the drought

"Without water we are nothing" : In Spain, the drought reignites the conflict over the Tagus

“This place used to be full of life. There were hundreds of tourists throughout the year. We sailed on the lake, we fished, we laughed,” Ricardo Ortega recalls from his pier. Since the 1970s, the navigation professional with a screwed-on cap and a graying beard has been running a small river tourism company in Sacedón, a village of almost 1,500 people in Castile-La Mancha, about a hundred kilometers east of Madrid. But today, despite the clear blue sky and the scorching sun, his pleasure boats are all stranded at the quay. The booking board is hopelessly empty.

Ricardo Ortega walks along his pier. The boats have been lying at the quay for several months due to a lack of reservations. The reason: the extremely low level of the lake. © Mehdi Chebil, France 24

Behind the sixty-year-old stretches sand, dry land, and burnt vegetation as far as the eye can see. In the distance a bridge: “The water used to reach there,” he emphasizes. “Now it looks like a desert. There is no water and no more people.” A few hundred meters further on, the gates of the municipal campsite are closed for lack of customers. A couple of damaged canoes are piled in one corner, remnants of when the establishment was still in the water.

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Created in the 1950s, this artificial lake is fed by the waters of the Tagus, the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula. When it was founded, it enabled the development of this hilly region by attracting a Madrid middle class in search of freshness. Sacedón was then called the “Beach of Madrid”.

“Who would come to enjoy a lake without water? ?”

With a catch: With each drought or heat episode, the flow of the Tagus decreases and prevents the lake from filling up. With climate change, however, these phenomena are becoming more frequent and intense. According to Ricardo Ortega, the lake has not reached normal levels since 2008.

In 2023, the situation will be at its peak. In early May, Spain is facing an unprecedented rainfall deficit and record-breaking seasonal temperatures. Upstream, the level of the Tagus is so low that you can walk right in its bed. A few kilometers further down, the Lac de Sacedón shows only 33% of its capacity.

The level of the Tagus, pictured here on May 8, 2023 near Gualda, east of Madrid, is already very low. © Mehdi Chebil, France 24

“Slowly, the tourists stopped coming,” laments Ricardo Ortega. “On the one hand, who would come to enjoy a lake that has no water, is dangerous to navigate and looks like a swamp?” The sixty-year-old now relies solely on boat restoration to sustain his activity. The ones he rents are sold individually.

But for humans, drought is only one of the culprits. “The drying up of the lake is mainly due to the overexploitation of our water resources. The drought only exacerbates the problem,” he says. In sight: the Tagus-Segura water transfer. This vast network of tunnels, aqueducts and irrigation canals, an initiative of the Franco regime, was created in 1979 and allows billions of liters of Tajo water to flow from the Sacedón reservoir to the “Spanish Levant” – the Alicante region – every year transport , Murcia and Almeria. An arid zone that has become the “vegetable garden of Europe” and a symbol of intensive agriculture.

“Not a drop more”

“We were sacrificed for the benefit of another region,” emphasizes Ricardo Ortega. “Since the transfers were implemented, we are no longer alive, we are surviving. Our economy is at half mast. Young people are moving away, shops are closing…” The anger was shared in the village: on the facade of the town hall, a large banner reads “Day Segura, not a drop more!”.

Ricardo Ortega shows an old photo of a canal that once fed the artificial lake with the water of the Tagus. It has been dry since 2008. © Mehdi Chebil, France 24

But the situation could change. Facing the river’s alarming state due to the combined effects of climate change and massive water pumps, Pedro Sanchez’s government decided in February to limit transfers to the Alicante region – a first. The declared goal: to reduce withdrawals by 30% by 2027 in order to raise the level of the river and thus protect its biodiversity. According to the government, the river’s flow has fallen by 12% and could fall by 14% to 40% by 2050.

If at the other end of the transmission the announcement is apparently welcomed by Ricardo Ortega, 300 km away, the government’s decision will not be accepted. In Alicante, Murcia and in the small surrounding villages, demonstrations follow one another with the same slogan: “No more decanting, no more vegetable gardens”.

© FMM Graphic Studio

Before the transfers, ‘this region looked like Africa’

Rogelio Rios attended several of these gatherings. At the age of 52, the imposing, tanned lemon farmer keeps hammering: “Without water we are nothing here!”

“Forty years ago, before the water from the Tagus arrived, this region looked like Africa. It was the desert. It was desolate and lifeless,” he explains of the peak of his exploitation in southern Alicante. This is how he remembers the difficulties of his grandparents, who owned the land before he and his parents. “They could only grow olive trees, a few almond trees and crops. The yields were low and you had to live with the uncertainty of whether it would rain enough or not,” he says. A landscape that is difficult to imagine when you line up lemon trees, orange trees, almond trees and other orchards of all kinds.

Rogelio Ortega monitors the growth of his lemons in the town of La Pedrera near Alicante on May 9, 2023. © Mehdi Chebil, France 24

“The transfer was a revolution. This has enabled us to become ‘Europe’s vegetable garden’,” he summarizes with a broad smile. The primary sector alone – agriculture – now provides 100,000 direct and indirect jobs in the “Spanish Levant”. The fruit and vegetables growing there should flood the shelves of European supermarkets, above all at unbeatable prices. According to the Central Irrigation Union of Tagus-Segura (Scrats), 25% of the vegetables exported by Spain and 71% of the fruit exported by Spain come from this region.

And in this unusually dry spring, the importance of water is clearer than ever. Rogelios Rios opened the floodgates to irrigate its 25-hectare fields from early March, two months earlier than normal. He draws his water directly from two pools on his land – one is filled with water from the nearby Segura River; the second on the Tagus. A distribution, he assures, that makes it possible to limit the pressure on the two rivers. But even irrigation threatens to reduce annual production. “If the rain doesn’t come, we’ll certainly have to sacrifice part of the harvest to save water, but at least we haven’t lost everything,” he reassures.

In a nearby village, Torremendos, José Vicente Andreu strolls through the dusty alleys full of lemon trees with a worried look on his face. He too has already started irrigating, but the effects of the drought are already being felt. Aside from lemons, which boast a gorgeous yellow color, others remain entirely green or tiny. “The trees lack water and cannot ripen their fruit sufficiently,” summarizes this agricultural engineer and president of the Asaja Agricultural Union chapter.

On José Manuel Andreu’s farm in Torremendos, south of Alicante, the effects of the drought are visible, despite state-of-the-art irrigation. © Mehdi Chebil, France 24

“If we are cut off from one of our main water sources – the Tagus – our vegetable garden will be in danger,” he warns. “This will force us to reduce our production or look for rarer and therefore more expensive water. This will automatically increase the price of our products and we will be less competitive in an increasingly competitive market.”

“I’m more worried about the government cutting off the water supply to the Tagus than about climate change,” agrees Rogelio Rios. “Our region has been suffering from drought for 200 years, we can always adapt unless we run out of water. In that case, there is nothing we can do.” According to Scrats, government reform could result in the abandonment of 12,200 hectares of cropland and the loss of 15,000 jobs.

When asked about the criticism in Castile-La Mancha, the answer is the same: “Spain’s water belongs to all Spaniards. It’s in the constitution. That’s normal for the stake.”

Focus on technology

The fate of the Tagus has drawn public debate as regional elections, scheduled for late May, loom, reviving tensions as old as the relocation itself. Alongside the protests, the issue regularly makes headlines. Asaja and Scrats have also announced that they will file a lawsuit against the drop in transfers.

The theme even creates alliances that seem impossible. The Socialists leading in the Valencia region allied with the conservative Murcian People’s Party against the decree. Conversely, the Socialists in power in Castilla-La Mancha are gaining the support of right-wing elected officials who are calling for the full end of the Tagus-Segura transfer. “The more water becomes scarce, the more it becomes a crucial and major political issue,” assures José Vicente Andreu.

The government, for its part, defends itself by ensuring compliance with European Union environmental legislation, which mandates the protection of watersheds. To make up for the lack of farmers, he promises increased investment in the development of alternative water sources. Including the desalination of seawater. A “wrong solution”, the two farmers interviewed complain: “Desalinated water costs much more than water from the Tagus and has strong ecological effects – it takes a lot of electricity to produce it and that generates harmful waste,” explains Rogelio Rios . “It has to be an addition, not a solution in itself,” says José Vicente Andreu with conviction.

“If we work on using water as rationally as possible, it can be enough for everyone,” assures the engineer. The latter has been trying since 2018 to make his company an example of the sensible use of the “blue gold”. The humidity of each plot is closely monitored using probes installed in the ground, which send real-time data to a mobile application. Added to this is a drip irrigation system that controls every millimeter of watering.

José Vicente Andreu shows how he uses his phone to monitor soil humidity and control the water needs of his farm in Torremendos, south of Alicante, in real time. © Mehdi Chebil, France 24

From Castilla-La Mancha to the “Levante”, this conflict over the Tagus River is indeed, for Spanish ecologists, the perfect example of a system that needs to be studied in depth. “We need a new hydrological plan at national level,” declared Julio Barea, responsible for water issues at Greenpeace Spain. “Today, 80% of water is used for agriculture and irrigation. In the context of a changing and arid climate, this is no longer sustainable.”