IN a series more used to highlighting problems in rural areas of countries such as Tanzania, Ethiopia and Niger, Villages on the Front Line (BBC World TV, December 22, 2006) came uncomfortably close to home. The series, produced as part of the 2006 International Year of Deserts and Desertification, focuses on how ordinary men and women in some of the poorest communities worldwide are learning to cope with the threat posed by encroaching deserts. It was no small shock, therefore, to see the spotlight turned on Andalucía.

Professor Daniel Lopez Martin of the University of Cadiz, painted a disturbing picture of Spain as a country in which 50 per cent of the land is now defined as arid or semi-arid and where one-third of this land is “severely or moderately desertified.”  This, of course, is the downside of Spanish sunshine – and nowhere, it seems, is the problem greater than here in Andalucía.

Set against a familiar landscape of scorched orange hillsides, Professor Lopez Martin outlined the problem. “This is a classic case of desertification,” he explains gesturing at a dried out watercourse. Using more water than you have, it seems, is a recipe for instant desert. “We are turning Spain into another Sahara.”

If the Professor is correct, the world’s greatest desert may be coming soon to a province near you – courtesy of the twin pressures of intensive agriculture and tourism.

Agriculture has seen two particularly destructive shifts over recent years an increase in water guzzling cash crops and a massive expansion in the growth of plastic greenhouses. This is a situation which led a recent United Nations Water Development Report for Spain to comment that the region’s water policy simply “…does not reflect reality.”

Nor is the awareness of a crisis restricted to learned professors. Greenhouse owner and flower grower Simon Ramos, bemoaned the current state of water provision. “The situation is becoming desperate. There simply is not enough water. We have 4,000-year-old aquifers drying out and salt levels are rising.”

The response to this crisis?  Predictably and sadly, it is to sink more wells and to reach ever deeper. With over half a million illegal wells in the Algeciras – Gibraltar region alone, the assault on Andalucía’s groundwater may be spiraling out of control.

The assault from tourism, it appears, is no less ferocious. Daniel Marijuan, from environment group Eccologias en Accion, summarized the problem. “Driven by a 50 per cent increase in numbers in the five years up to 2003, tourist-related construction and leisure activities are currently swallowing around 50,000 hectares of land each year… With a single golf course accounting for the water consumption of up to 10,000 people, these are thirsty activities.” 

So what are the solutions? Carlos Roca of the Costa Balena Golf Club puts his faith in recycling as a means to sustainable development. “Recycling our water leads to a 50 per cent reduction in consumption.”  This, of course, still leaves the club with a possible annual consumption equal to that of 5,000 people – a point clearly not lost on Placido Pino Cordero, leader of a union of traditional farmers who recently took on and defeated a powerful development lobby to reverse planning permission for another golf course and retain villagers’ rights to keep control over their water.

But the problem is not all down to Big Business, it seems. The loss of traditional farming skills is now playing an increasing part in accelerating soil erosion, while lack of maintenance is leading to the collapse of the traditional sustainable irrigation systems. “The new generation has no idea,” grumbled smallholder Juan Arias Gril.  “All they want to do is smoke their joints, have a good time and nothing else.”

Where ever you place the blame, it is clear this is a crisis which will not simply go away. The Government is increasingly placing its faith in water diversion schemes, more dams or building expensive desalination plants: all measures which will have a further damaging effect on the environment. The answer, everyone knows, is being frugal with water. But how is this possible when Spain’s spectacular economic growth of two decades has been based on profligate use?

Ironically, the first advertisement of the commercial break was for tourism.  “Smile…You are in Spain,” it told us, against images of lush green golf courses and golden beaches.  But for how much longer?  Just to the south, lurks a beast waiting to swallow this land – and we, it seems, may be inviting it in.

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