Why Spain’s drought concerns all of us.


For weeks we have been moved by the fate of little Julen, who unfortunately did not survive the fall into a borehole.

Some may have wondered why we are particularly interested in this news, but it is directly related to our knowledge of resource scarcity on the one hand and the increasing resource wastage on the other – a paradox that has visible consequences.


Organic fruit and vegetables

Who doesn’t like to buy fresh fruit and vegetables that we find in our supermarkets at affordable prices all year round? Much of this fruit and vegetable comes from Spain, for example from the region around Almería. The “Mar de Plástico” with an oversized area of greenhouses and plastic surfaces craves great amounts of water. Although the use of pesticides and fertilisers has been reduced in recent years, and vegetable and fruit production has almost completely switched to organic farming, the use of water as a resource remains problematic, despite individual irrigation systems already being used very sparingly. Water as a resource is still cheap. The demand for organic food has risen sharply in Northern Europe – especially in Germany -, and together with it the interest in Spanish organic fruit and vegetables has also increased. Groundwater resources, however, are depleted and the country is drying up ever more.

After having been deforested extensively throughout the country’s history, Spain also lacks forests areas which are necessary for the climate and the water balance, including groundwater recharge.


Deforestation

The origin of Spain’s large-scale deforestation dates back a long time. Columbus was to discover new worlds, and for each galleon, thousands of trunks had to be felled. Later in the course of the wars against England, shipbuilding became more and more important. In addition, a lot of forest disappeared for agriculture on fields and meadows.

Many fast-growing conifers were planted to solve the problem of deforestation, thus disturbing the ecological balance. Compared to deciduous forests, conifers not only extract more water from the soil, but also catch fire more easily. Native oaks and beeches should be planted instead.


Tourism

Tourism also plays a major role in the water scarcity issue. After a cheap flight, we arrive as tourists in hotels which hardly limit our water consumption, regardless of the friendly hints to use this resource more sparingly and maybe not to change our towels every day. Above all, the large number of golf courses is one of the reasons for water shortages in Spain. Could we maybe do without playing golf in dry areas? The water consumption for a golf course can be compared to an entire small town. In the Madrid area alone, there are 28 golf courses.


The consequences for the population and small fruit and vegetable growers

The population is regularly supplied with tankers. Pipelines are planned from north to south. In order to find groundwater, holes are often also dug at night under moon lighting – as referred to earlier – and are known as the mostly not approved boreholes. According to estimates by the environmental organisation Greenpeace, there are over a million such illegal holes throughout the country. Water is the basis for the economic survival of small farms and fruit growers. Most citrus, orange and olive trees are in danger.


Possible solutions

Almería already has seawater desalination plants. These are not fully utilised as the public water supply is still cheaper. The desalinated sea water generates higher costs, since much energy is necessary in the process. But wouldn’t this be a question of subsidising solar desalination plants and pricing public drinking water differently? And would we then be willing to pay more for organic products from Spain?

A positive example is the city of Zaragoza. The main theme of Expo 2008 was “Water and Sustainable Development”. The city’s water consumption has fallen steadily in recent years. The population is integrated in the measures and given incentives to save water.

A little boy, Julen, became a victim to this resource problem after falling into a borehole. That touches our hearts. Only two days after his recovery, another drama shook the country: A 45-year-old was also discovered dead in a well shaft. We share the grief of the families.

And so, in the end, what remains is the hope that these personal fates will help those responsible but also each and every one of us to rethink our ways of resource management and consumption.