Drowning in a desert of plastic

LAST UPDATED: 23 Oct, 2010 @ 16:05
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There is a certain irony, claims Bob Maddox, that not only do the plastic greenhouses of the coast of Almería and Granada suck the land dry to stock the shelves of supermarkets, but also threaten the lives of local populations with increased risk of flooding

 

IN a development that may prove to have far reaching effects for the region’s coastal environment, the Guardia Civil last week issued a report damning the environmental impact of the invernaderos of Almería and Granada.

In particular, the report highlights the role of these plastic greenhouses in helping to transform the torrential rainstorms that characterise the region’s climate into catastrophic flash floods.

In all, nine municipalities – Motril, Carchuna, Gualchos, Rubite, Lujar, Polopos, Sorvilan, Albondon and Albuñol – are highlighted as being at heightened risk of flooding as their thousands of hectares of impermeable plastic greenhouses interrupt the natural flow of the coastal hydrological cycle.

In the words of the report: “The plastic greenhouses could influence the evolution of catastrophes as a result of the torrential rains that are common in the area.”

“Giant umbrellas”

In a natural hydrological cycle, any water which falls as rain moves through a complex series of interconnected pathways on its return to the sea. These natural pathways slow down the transfer of water and, crucially, absorb and re-direct it, reducing the volume which actually flows across the surface of the land as runoff – the cause of flooding and erosion.

Floods become a natural part of such a system, occurring mainly on river flood plains, areas which are adapted to cope with seasonal inundation.

Where the geology allows, water may also percolate deep into porous rocks where it is stored as groundwater, often resting there for many thousands of years. Eventually, water may reach the oceans, where evaporation lifts it once more into the atmosphere to complete the cycle.

However, cover the land with plastic and the effect is similar to opening a giant umbrella. Denied its natural pathways, rainwater shoots rapidly across the surface to overwhelm barrancos and ramblas (gullies and dry riverbeds), tearing at the fragile land and spilling out across towns and villages.

The recent tragedy of Almuñecar, when floods caused almost 100 million euros of damage, stands as testimony to the destructive power of water in a hydrological cycle corrupted by the thoughtless development of a river flood plain.

Uncontrollable

It is surely a supreme irony that plasticultura has finally been officially identified as a contributory factor in the catastrophic flooding that affects the region.

This is, after all, the same industry which greedily converts hundreds of thousands of tonnes of irreplaceable groundwater into salad crops each year for export to the supermarkets of north-west Europe (Greenhouse Effect, the Olive Press issue 15).

With over 500 alleged illegal wells currently draining the ancient groundwater supplies and sucking away at the lifeblood of the towns, villages and traditional agriculture, we now have the added dimension of flooding to add to the industry’s catalogue of environmental misdemeanours.

But for opponents of an industry the Guardia Civil has admitted is now “out of control,” there is a glimmer of hope. The environment department of the Junta has decided that plastic greenhouses now qualify as ‘constructions’ and need the same licences and permissions as any other type of building.


This represents an important departure from past practice and hundreds of greenhouses may now be classified as illegal under the terms of this new definition. Further, the Junta has announced plans to demolish any greenhouses erected on protected land, or those built without the correct documentation. Critically for the flooding issue, greenhouses that proliferate in the ramblas and barrancos could now face demolition.

So, could the tide finally be turning in the sea of plastic that, after 30 years of unbridled expansion, has swamped the coastal regions, inundating flood plains and creeping up the river valleys towards the very foot of the Sierra Nevada themselves?

Certainly, there appears to have been an awakening of awareness amongst those in authority. “Plastic greenhouses are one of Man’s biggest impacts on the environment,” runs the report, published earlier this month. They “represent a risk to the well-being of the local population,” and “disfigure the land beyond belief.”

Strong words, but whether they will be backed by strong action remains to be seen.

Profits and losses

Meanwhile, as greenhouses continue to suck at the regions groundwater and more rainstorms are sluiced aside and concentrated into floodwaters to strip the land of its fragile soils, the only industry capable of drying out the land from below while simultaneously flooding its surface will, no doubt, continue its inexorable spread.

If so, then what of the future for Almería and Granada? Humanity has a history of decision making based primarily on the importance of personal gain – of profit and loss – always tilting the balance sheet in favour of human advantage, no matter what the cost to our environment. Rarely has an environmental catastrophe been anticipated and action taken to avoid it – in environmental matters, we have a history of reacting to circumstances late in the game, while maintaining the illusion that we actually in control.


The very language we use is telling. We speak of ‘the environment’ and of ‘Saving the Planet’ as though we were somehow separated from them; as though their ills were not ours – but they are. As flash floods sweep precious soil from the land and deep wells pull irreplaceable groundwater to the surface, the environmental clock continues to run.

The golden days of the 60s are long gone.

In far less than one human lifetime, the Mediterranean Sea has been transformed into the haunt of bacteria and jellyfish in part by the influx of fertilisers and human waste. Its beaches are vanishing as its rivers no longer exist to carry sand down to the sea. And now its very land is in the process of being turned into a desert from below, while being stripped of its soil from above.

Geese and plastic eggs

Proponents of plasticultura point to the wealth it has created and the poverty it has alleviated – and rightly so. Once poor areas of Andalucía are now among the richest in Spain, after local landowners realised the amounts of money involved in growing fruit and vegetables under plastic could transform their lives over night.

But unfortunately, this may prove to have been a short-term fix; for there really is no such thing as a free lunch – even a salad. With so much of the region’s employment, industry and prosperity now essentially balanced on the edge of a plastic credit card, the future may be darker than we suppose.

For the reality is that plasticultura is simply not a sustainable industry.

Its inevitable collapse may well leave us with a legacy of environmental catastrophe in the shape of a desert of abandoned greenhouses, with tattered plastic blowing across a land stripped of its soil and bled of its groundwater – with no way back.

What then for Almeria and Granada?

Overspecialisation and overdependence have always been environmentally and economically dangerous games to play. Unless action is taken soon, this is not an issue to be decided by politicians – it will be decided by water. Or rather the lack of it.

Satellite image of Campo de Dalias in Almería province

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