Since early 2004, Spain has had an acute shortage of rainfall with Murcia bearing the brunt of what is now classed as a severe drought. In 2005, environment ministry officials put the region at “very high” risk of turning into desert along with Valencia and the Canary Islands.

Local farmers have inevitably suffered from water shortages – last year Murcia’s fruit growers association (ASAJA) claimed that more than 90% of farmers in the region had been affected by prolonged drought conditions, devastating more than 30% of irrigated citrus and vegetable harvests, and up to 50% of non-irrigated dry land crops were lost in the area, following minimal or no rainfall and soaring temperatures. By 2006, Murcia’s reservoirs plummeted to just 15% capacity, prompting the regional department of agriculture to invest an additional €17.1m to improve irrigation systems.

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Emergency projects to modernise irrigation systems started in earnest last year in the poorest areas and continued in 2006, with subsidies flowing into irrigation schemes that carry out their own modernisations and improvements. Water-sharing between regions has become one of the biggest domestic issues for prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. With little promise of abundant rainfall, the problem looks as though it will persist as regional governments such as Murcia’s become increasingly concerned about what they says is the failure of the government’s National Hydrological Plan.

Murcia’s experience in engineering aquifers and irrigation infrastructure can be traced back to the 12th century. The Arabs’ diversion of the river Segura into a complex network of irrigation channels was the predecessor of today’s modern irrigation system. Now the Tagus-Segura scheme diverts some of the headwaters of the Tagus for early fruit and vegetable growing and vast citrus estates.

Spain began its first major river diversion scheme in the 1960s by linking the Tagus in the west with the Segura in the south-east, a transfer of 600m cubic metres of water a year. However, by 1999 this was reduced to about 40m cubic metres. Last year, reservoirs in the central region of Castilla, north-west of Murcia, were at a third of their capacity, the lowest in at least 10 years.

Water disputes

The local government was reluctant to transfer too much water so Madrid intervened, ordering four water transfers – more than Castilla wanted to give and less than Murcia needed. Now the flow of water depends on rainfall and central government approval. So far this year, Madrid has allowed the transfer of 39m cubic metres of water from the river Tagus to reservoirs in Murcia’s Segura basin as an emergency measure for household use and to minimise the effects of the drought on Murcia’s citrus crop. Murcia had asked for nearly double that amount. It has not helped that the local governments in the two regions are from opposing political parties: Castilla is governed by the Socialists, Mr Zapatero’s party; Murcia by the main opposition Popular Party.

A more ambitious plan to bring water from the river Ebro was blocked by Mr Zapatero’s government when it came to power in April 2004. The plan would have brought plentiful mineral-rich water from the mountains of the north, costing €4.2bn. Murcia’s government has argued that since the beginning of the hydrological year (October 1, 2005) 3207 cubic hectometres have flowed from the Ebro into the Mediterranean, of which 553m cubic metres could have been piped south without any environmental impact. On the other hand, environmentalists point to the cost of disrupting the river’s flow, which would affect nearly 20,000 acres of fragile wetlands on the Ebro delta.

Desalination plants

Mr Zapatero’s government eventually came up with a €3.7bn plan to construct up to 20 desalination plants along the Murcian coast. About 5% of Spain’s drinking water already comes from such plants and Almería, which borders Murcia to the south, is home to Europe’s biggest plant at Carboneras. Built in a record 18 months in 2002 by UK Thames Water subsidiary Pridesa (Proyectos e Instalaciones de Desalación, SA), the plant uses reverse osmosis to provide 120,000 cubic metres of clean water a day for irrigation, industrial and household use.

Pridesa is keen to invest in Murcia in future and already has a good track record, working on water infrastructure projects and supplying services to 300,000 customers throughout Spain through its Ondagua subsidiary. It has built 50 similar plants around the world and is the world’s third largest water company with more than 70 million customers worldwide.

Although some argue that low mineral and phytoplankton content is an issue along with soil salinity, greenhouse and hydroponic farmers say that lower bacteria and nematode levels act as a natural pest control. What to do with the concentrated brine left over from the reverse osmosis process has been an issue but plants in Florida and Saudi Arabia have successfully discharged the brine to evaporate safely on land without contaminating ground water or sea life.

New desalination plants will cater to the greenhouse farmers and market gardens of Murcia, and supply tap water to a wave of tourist developments and golf courses. Much has been made of the wasting of water on golf courses but Tony Coles, managing director of the three-course La Manga Club, says: “Computer irrigation technology means that tiny drops of water are dispensed with the exact amount of nutrients and fertilisers at exactly the right time and temperature. The result is that little or no water is lost to evaporation.”

La Manga Club does not seem to have water problems, with two large reservoirs filled to the brim and numerous small lakes dotted around the golf courses, but developers moving into the region are cautious about water supply. Such large-scale developments will almost certainly have to build their own desalination plants or be supplied by one of the new plants in the government’s revised hydrological plan.

Conservation

 

Murcia (along with many parts of the southern Mediterranean) is having to devise solutions not only to find new sources of water but for water conservation, waste management and recycling. All these measures involve applied technology and money for research and development. Many in Spain argue that water should be set at a higher price to make consumers use it more sparingly. At present, water costs one-30th of prices elsewhere in Europe.

If the price of water were increased considerably, waste would be stopped and private companies could have access to a semi-liberalised market providing extra income for water-producing regions. Murcia is already committed to building more desalination plants but is keen to control the precious resource and administer it as it chooses without central government interference.

The bone of contention between Murcia and Madrid is who should foot the bill for the desalination plants and their future maintenance. Murcia has offered to split the costs of building the plants and even pay the interest on construction costs while they are being built. There is also the added cost to farmers, who without a water subsidy would undoubtedly be affected by water price hikes. Spain’s environment minister Cristina Narbona has already pledged an extra €370m to Murcia to fight the drought, with more desalination plants, more recycling, new wells, and plans to plug leaky pipelines and canals. However, until the desalination plants are built, Murcia will have to rely on water transfers.

Rising costs

Murcia’s irrigation zones have grown enormously under the heavily subsidised Tagus and Segura river diversion schemes (with water for irrigation sometimes up to 100 times cheaper than water for industry). This allows intensively farmed irrigated crops to flourish all year round but these subsidies are unlikely to last forever as water becomes increasingly expensive to produce and transport.

And as water has become more scarce, Murcia’s government has begun to control the use of water for agriculture with a system of ‘water banks’ that meter water down to the last drop. Farmers are allocated quotas of subsidised water that they can theoretically broker to other businesses if they decide not to irrigate.

Murcia’s water banks have created a new market allowing farmers to pay for water at an ATM-style machine and draw out the exact quantity they need, encouraging them to improve the efficiency of their irrigation infrastructure and use water wisely.

Farmers can buy and sell water under and over their allocated limit if they have surplus water or need extra. They can then grow crops that need less water, even if they are less profitable. This system also allows local towns and villages to buy surplus water from farmers, where available.