Blood is Thicker...

| 1st February 2003
Ros Coward reports from Murcia in southern Spain, the driest place in Europe, where tourism and intensive agriculture is draining its meagre water supplies and causing a growing environmental crisis.

Flicking through your weekend travel supplement something catches your eye. Murcia, southern Spain. Slightly away from the main tourist destinations. A ‘fertile coastal plain’, a great property opportunity with its good transport links to northern Europe, an endless supply of fresh fruits, vegetables and wine, and as yet unspoilt by mass tourism. In short Murcia promises sun, sand and sangria without the fish and chips of Benidorm.

What really makes your mind up though is the price of the flight – as little as £4.50. For Murcia is now served by one of the low cost airlines – Buzz.

A few weeks later, you recline (though not far) in your small but remarkably cheap airline seat, a gin and tonic (£2.50) in your hand, and take the in-flight magazine from the seat in front of you.

‘The tourist development which swarms the nearby coastline has almost entirely passed it by,’ announces Buzz’s in-flight guide. You feel slightly smug. You’ve discovered somewhere near enough to home for a short break, yet sufficiently unknown to feel a bit more adventurous, an opportunity to see a more authentic side of Spain.

Soft landing

Landing at the airport a couple of hours later you are impressed by the manicured lawns and lush  flowerbeds. As your hire car pulls onto one of the  many new motorways funded by EU money you can’t help but be further impressed, if a little begrudgingly. But any jealousy is soon countered by the ease with which you can now get from the airport to more remote destinations.

Perhaps you will stay first at the Mar Menor, the region’s most famous tourist destination and a unique wildlife site. It is a coastal salt lagoon, shallow and warm, ideal for the increasing numbers of windsurfers and still home (just) to large numbers of flamingos which flock to its waters.

Staying in one of the many hotels crammed onto the narrow strip of land between the sea and the lagoon you will never realise that is was once a beautiful stretch of unspoilt white sand. Instead, you’ll see an exciting holiday spot, full of restaurants, shops, villas and apartments, all with lovely views and surrounded by water.

Exploring inland on the ultra-convenient motorways you are spirited into the hills and arid hinterland. After passing through the vast acreage of fruit and vegetable growing areas, you will find that there are still areas of attractive Mediterranean scrub-land dotted around the hills between the pleasant market towns.

Going up…

Nonetheless, you can’t fail to notice the amount of development going on. The coastal strip bristles with cranes, and the interior is covered with those typically Spanish urbanisations, in which the lampposts, roads and concrete bases appear long before the houses themselves.

Much of the area is simply unattractive – the permanent building site along the coast; the fields covered with plastic sheeting known as polytunnels; the shacks housing immigrants who work on the farms; and the rigid rows of tiny orange trees, their roots watered by the endless miles of black pipes which snake across the sandy soil.

But those other attractions which originally drew the Brits in such numbers to Spain prevail – the warm Mediterranean, the sense of Spain’s vast interior, its history, wine and the ubiquitous hanging haunches of ham. Before you know it, you’re thinking about buying here. The developments are more upmarket than on the Costa del Sol, more spacious and more discreet, and many are built around golf courses with views of the sea and private swimming pools. You can use the profits made from the property boom in the UK to buy here. You can let it out when you don’t want it. It’s sure to generate income because people will always want to visit this area of Spain. Won’t they?

… Coming down

Well, perhaps not. At the heart of this expansion is a growing environmental crisis caused by water shortage, a crisis in which tourism is fully implicated. This is the driest area of Europe, where tourism and industrial agriculture are drinking it dry.

The lush golf courses and well-watered plots represent an unsustainable lie, like all the other lies that have sustained this holiday from the moment you stepped onto your ‘cheap’ flight.  Aviation, the fastest growing contributor to climate change, receives a huge hidden subsidy. It pays no tax on aviation fuel and no VAT on the purchase of planes, servicing or air fares. Even landing fees and other airport charges at the main airports are kept to a minimum by the Civil Aviation Authority regulatory regime to well below market levels.

The newly born network of smooth, perfectly formed Spanish motorways have been built at the expense of Spain’s threatened wildlife – in particular the Iberian lynx. This wild cat, which needs to disperse to breed, has had its territories and isolated communities bisected by the motorways and is now Europe’s most endangered carnivore. Conservative estimates put the number remaining at 130.

Next to the motorways, there is an endless vista of agricultural production which is far more than an extension of the vegetable growing for which Spain has always been famous. Most of Murcia’s intensive agriculture supplies all-year-round vegetables for UK supermarkets. The supermarkets claim they are simply satisfying consumer demand. Meanwhile, they use their purchasing power globally to get the cheapest, most uniform fruit and vegetables available at the expense of local, seasonally grown produce.

And those organic parsnips you buy to avoid pesticides? They are grown in Spain exclusively for the UK. The Spanish haven’t a clue what a parsnip is. They don’t eat them. They just grow them for the British and then generate tonnes of pollution getting them over as fast as possible (neatly wrapped in plastic, of course). This kind of production is one of the main problems with which British small farmers have to contend. Many of our farmers simply cannot compete with the costs, looks and all-year-round supply from places like Spain.

Much of this intensive agriculture uses polytunnels, or invernados as they are known locally. The process started in the 1960s around the arid town of El Ejido in Almeria where it was discovered that the tomato yield (and season) could be extended by shovelling a thin layer of sand over the soil and covering with it plastic. This improved ground humidity, micro-thermals and resistance to salinity. Farmers using water from underground acquifers became rich with this intensive market-gardening technique. Traditional slow-growing dry agriculture was abandoned in favour of all-year-round profits.

The polytunnels, meanwhile, are thirsty, ugly and have to be replaced annually, creating a major problem of disposal. The vast majority are either left in unsightly heaps or burnt. Dark plumes of toxic smoke from burning plastic are a common sight. Still, what would we do without salad in December?

This kind of intensive agriculture depends heavily on fertilisers and pesticides, which get washed into rivers and then the sea. Nowhere are the effects clearer than in the Mar Menor. Recently the lagoon has suffered from infestations of jellyfish caused by the nitrates from agricultural run-off. Officials are now paying fishermen to scoop out the jellyfish every day, creating a new attraction for holidaymakers: piles of rotting jellyfish. ‘It’s typical,’ says Guido Schmidt of WWF’s Living Waters project. ‘Always dealing with the surface, not tackling the root cause.’

There are social costs too. These areas under intensive development are the focus of hundreds of thousands of new immigrants, mostly unauthorised workers from North Africa. Although Spanish employers face fines for hiring illegal workers, many risk it because they can pay very low wages, sometimes as little as £15 for an eight-hour day.

Most greenhouse farmers earn approximately £30,000 per acre but still refuse to house their workers, who often end up making shacks from discarded polytunnels. The luckier ones live in concrete hovels with no running water. Working conditions are horrendous. With the number of immigrants increasing in recent years there have been attacks and riots. The Moroccan Workers Association complains that farm workers are ‘needed but not wanted’.

As the fertile areas around the river and coast cede to tourism, so agriculture has marched relentlessly inland into the arid interior making huge demands for water. Officially the Spanish government is meant to stop any expansion of irrigated land in these areas because of water shortages and depleted aquifers. But a cursory glance shows this is totally ignored. In Murcia it is estimated that 5,000–10,000 hectares of new illegally irrigated plots are created every year.

These areas of cultivation are watered from wells driven into already depleted aquifers or by illegally siphoning water from reserves transferred from the River Ebro in the northwest. Over-exploiting underground water increases its salt content, reducing the fertility of the soil, while over-production exhausts the land. Intensive irrigation causes the earth to suck in salty water from the Mediterranean. Desertification is already visible in places. Continued salination could ultimately return the entire region to desert.

A good walk spoiled

Nothing is more incongruous in this desert landscape than the golf courses. The difference between the first wave of mass tourism to Spain and those who are arriving now is that today people are increasingly buying property. Golf courses are a key factor in attracting the ‘right’ sort of upmarket purchaser, invariably from the UK and, to a lesser degree, Germany. Currently Murcia has plans for another thirty-four.

Murcia’s regional authorities claim the water for these new developments is recycled. But at one new golf course in Argorfa – a surreal area of dark green in virtual desert – it is impossible to see how. There are no signs of an infrastructure for delivering recycled water and no sign of daily containers arriving. More likely, as with most other irrigated schemes in the area, the water is coming illegally from the already depleted Segura river.

One of the five main directors of this golf course is Maria Teresa Ballester Carreras, wife of José Maria Garcia Zarco, who has important positions in Murcia’s Department of Public Work, Urbanism and Transport, which oversees land use. This overlap between politicians and construction companies is common. Protection against inappropriate development is negligible and what protection there is – the zoning of regions – is alarmingly fluid.

Even when campaigners have been able to prove illegal agricultural irrigation and get fines imposed, the municipality promptly reclassifies the land as suitable for housing development. Last year half the land classified as natural open space along Murcia’s coast between Mazarron and Aguilas was declassified in this way, freeing 5,000 hectares for agriculture or construction.

Ironically, all this activity may kill the goose that laid the golden egg. The general secretary of the Association of Naturalists of the South East (ANSE) says: ‘We have British and German tourists coming to us who bought into these upmarket developments and are appalled when their pleasant complexes are engulfed by other developments. They can’t understand why there’s no proper land use planning. But what we have here is pretty much development on demand.’

Trouble brewing

The massive demand which these new developments and intensive agriculture make on water resources is already beginning to generate terrible tensions in the region. Miranda Suarez’ family has farmed in the hills behind Cartegna near Murcia for over 500 years. In a traditional Mediterranean landscape, she farms in the traditional way, growing only undemanding olives, almonds and citrus fruits. She waters her land from a natural spring, which is the subject of local legend. It is said the Tartars used to guard the spring in case the Moors poisoned it. Since then it has been used in the traditional way, a free source of water for neighbouring farmers.

But now the surrounding farms are changing and water levels are frighteningly low. Suarez says the spring will be dry in three years. ‘There are at least 16 illegal bore holes in neighbouring land. All the land around here is being bought by large companies, often the same people who are building on the coast. They drill pump holes, use some water for irrigation up here, but sell the majority to the water companies. This entitles them to extract water from the same companies further down towards the coast to supply the new developments, golf courses and intensive agriculture.’

This is all part of a process that is ravishing the traditional landscape where imperial eagles and genets used to be common. ‘In 1994 there was a huge  fire around here which destroyed 40,000 hectares of forest,’ says Suarez. ‘Landowners were told to leave the scrub to regenerate. There was even EU money available. But then I realised that the burnt land was being bought, grants claimed and bulldozers were moving in, clearing the old forest stumps. Next, fields of broccoli appeared, watered by illegal bore holes.’ The real prize in all this, she says, is water. ‘That’s what is missing at the coast. That’s what these construction companies need and they are prepared to do anything to get it.’

Suarez, who will not use her real name, has been threatened and abused. There is constant pressure on her to sell her land and threats of more ‘forest fires’ if she doesn’t sell. She has taken her case to Europe, trying to highlight the misuse of European funds. But she says: ‘I don’t know how much longer I can continue like this. I am almost under siege.’

Water transfer

The Spanish government’s solution is the Spanish National Hydrological Plan (SNHP). So far, its main achievement has been to divide the country, creating the biggest civil protests in post-Franco Spain, with millions demonstrating in Madrid and Barcelona last year. Around the Ebro delta, where 80 per cent of the economy is still dependent on the river (for growing rice, fishing and transportation), walls in the towns and villages are covered in the symbol of resistance, the knotted water pipe with the slogan: ‘No to the Transfer. Water is for Life’. Local women run market stalls selling campaigning material and recruiting support.

In spite of this resistance the Party Populaire, Spain’s ruling right-wing party, pushed the plan through last summer. Now protestors are hoping to persuade the EU to refuse to pay for the major infrastructure projects. The Spanish government, however, claims 30 per cent of the money used for SNHP projects has already come and is confident it will receive the rest.

The plan is highly complicated, but at its heart it is a huge transfer of water from north to south involving the construction of dams and aqueducts. As such, it is a huge boost to the construction industry. Supporters of the scheme, which include Murcia’s regional government, buy into the old Stalinist belief that wetlands like the Ebro have water in excess and that a river discharging into the sea is wasted water.

But this is a myth. Without its natural flows, the Ebro delta will sink; it is maintained by the sediment and the flow of fresh water permits the rice cultivation. Its levels are already seriously depleted because of illegal irrigation. ‘It’s as if your mother has anaemia and the hospital decides to sell her blood,’ says an opponent of the plan.

The abandoned infrastructure of previous transfers chillingly supports these warnings. Under Franco, the region was once before the recipient of water from a transfer between the Tajo and the Segura rivers. Now the aqueducts lie empty. At that time the promise of water transfers created a huge demand in anticipation of future water, a demand far greater than the amount of water that arrived.

The same is happening again. ‘The authorities expect extra water to be transferred from the Ebro so they are irrigating new zones in anticipation of water to come,’ says Juan Pedro Garcia Martinez of Anse. ‘This worsens existing shortages and means that even if water is eventually transferred there will still be a deficit. If the transfer is not agreed, great shortages could produce a situation of crisis.’

What is happening in Murcia is extreme but not atypical. Without a more sustainable approach to water, these conflicts could be precursors of future conflicts in all arid areas. ‘We need a whole Europe approach to what’s happening, a discussion about how some areas are serving others in the European community,’ says Martinez. ‘Europe as a whole needs to ask, what do we want to extract from the Mediterranean? More to the point, what can we extract from areas like these without disaster?’

Ros Coward is a columnist for The Guardian.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2003

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