Society & Culture
Water Wisdom
By Paul Read
Apr 7, 2005, 01:36

Jumping in at the deep end

An empty pool stood redundant
The dust was a deep copper-red and settled like sunburnt dandruff on the tops of our feet. Through squinted vision we watched a bouncing Suzuki jeep containing the tearful seller of our house disappear in the distance. We waved cheerfully and turned to face our new home in a blissfully peaceful, but momentary ignorance. How were we to know? Our water pump had long since stopped pumping, an empty pool stood redundant and blue, and the once green garden was turning a concrete grey. Water, was about to become a central issue in our lives. In a way it had always been so, but as we had lived a sheltered existence we were detached from such realities by town life. The following few months would take us on an aquatic voyage of discovery, frustration and enlightenment. Our enforced embarkation marked not only the start of our own path to “water-awareness”, but a realisation that not only arid Andalusia is suffering but that the planet as a whole has an unquenchable thirst. Water it seemed, was a valuable commodity and looks set to replace petrol as the currency of the 21st century.

Half full or half empty?
As city dwellers buying a rural property, we had naively accepted the owner’s good word: ”Lots of water here. The pump needs a clean now and then. Never had a shortage in 20 years!” Looking into our depleted water deposit we couldn’t decide whether it was half full or half empty - we just knew that without a reliable water source our new home would be just a tad unliveable. Had we left it too late to check out the facts?

Statistics need not necessarily be dry. As animals that are 65% water we are constitutionally more soggy than solid. Perhaps we should therefore be more sensitive to the scarcity of water on our planet, but the figures would indicate otherwise. Over 97% of the world’s water slops about in the seas. The artic caps freeze up another 2%, which leaves just a fraction of 1% as fresh water available for you, me, my cat and the rest of the planet. Plenty for all you might say, only you’d be wrong.

It’s not that water is running out, it’s just that each day there are more thirsty mouths looking to share it. A world population of 6 billion today is expected to reach 9 billion by the year 2050. That’s an awful lot of dry throats. From where will we get the extra water? Should we pay more for it or is it the one product that we should have as a right? And if it is a right, how come that some get it cheaper than others?

A Spanish context

Remember that 1% of the world’s water that is available to us? Well 70% of this amount is consumed by the agriculture industry at vastly subsidised prices. You could be paying up to fifty times what your agricultural neighbour is paying for the same cubic litre. The growing demands from this intensive industry has sparked a controversy in Spain over the last few years, culminating recently when the present government responded to the previous administrations River Ebro diversion plans.

The situation up until recently

The last government - the Partido Popular (PP)- attempted to introduce a plan to bring water from the River Ebro to the more arid regions of Valencia, Murcia and Almeria. This controversial plan was seen by opponents as kowtowing to the huge agricultural businesses on the coast and the powerful “concrete” - lobby within Spain (the construction and hydroelectric industries). The PP had planned to divert 1 billion cubic metres of water a year using an enormous pipeline that would carry water down to the coastal regions. It was also hoping to get European funding despite an EU directive ruling out water transfers from one area to another.

But it wasn’t just the EU that frowned upon the PP’s plans. In the town of Zaragoza, situated on the banks of the River Ebro, the local opposition staged a demonstration against the projected PP plan. 400.000 people in a town of 650.000 marched in protest at seeing their water supply robbed from under there noses. They and others argued that Valencia and Murcia were Spain’s second and fourth fastest growing tourist regions in 2001 and that the water was clearly for more swimming pools and golf courses, as well feeding Spain’s huge agro business - highly polluting, often illegal greenhouses that hide exploitative work conditions for immigrant labourers beneath an ocean of plastic.

However before the plan could come to fruition, the PP were soundly removed from office in the March 2004 elections and were replaced by the PSOE (Partido Socialista Obreros España) who had pledged to present an alternative plan.

The situation now

“I want to announce a new politics of water, a politics that takes into consideration not just the economic, but the social and environmental value too…..”
Thus spoke the President of Spain during his inaugural speech to the Spanish Cortes and on the 2nd September 2004 the minister for Environment, Cristina Narbona, presented in Madrid the Govt plan to replace the Ebro pipe project with: Actuaciones para la Gestión y la Utilización del Agua. (AGUA). In place of pipelines and river diversions the PSOE opted not only for new desalination plants, but for the amplification of existing plants, the modernisation of existing irrigation systems, and the conservation and re-utilisation of water:

“This plan will allow every citizen to come to know and to understand better the politics of water, and to act in a more responsible way”.

This was indeed a far cry from the “concrete lobby” politics of the previous administration. Here was a cabinet minister attempting to not just answer the water needs of the coastal regions, but to promote a consciousness about water scarcity and the ecological debates surrounding the issues. As a symbol of the new administrations policy, the government publicised the arguments on a web page: in which not only can you learn in detail of the government plans, but voice your opinions via a questionnaire, that we are told will be taken into account over the ensuing parliamentary debates. True participatory democracy or just a propaganda exercise? One thing looks certain though, unlike the PP plan, this looks likely to get the EU funding of approx 33%.

Pumping paranoia

Meanwhile, back at the farm, we had decided that the deposit was in fact half full and that the problem was a mere technical one concerning the water pump electrics. Our water pump stood at 300m behind the house at the bottom of a barranco. The well itself was just under the surface of the ground, exploiting the underground stream that falls gently between hills behind the house. We were lucky to have water so near the surface.
Site of water pump

When we started to research information about pumps and drilling we discovered a curious fact: in India during the 1950’s there were fewer than 100.000 motorised pumps in use, now there are about 20 million. Fears abound that underground reservoirs are running out. This led us to look a little closer to home and we found out that in Malaga the average drilling depth for new wells is 100metres and that there is an estimated 10.000 illegal wells in the province. If there are 10.000 illegal wells, how many legal ones are there? What could all these pumps be for? Intensive agriculture, hotels, apartments, water parks, private swimming pools and of course the ever controversial golf courses that, according to statistics, one club alone during one year can consume the equivalent to that of a town of 12.000 people.

Whilst we pondered the possibility of yet more desertification sparked by an unhindered tourist industry, we set about attempting to repair the pump. It would take a while as we are mechanically inept and so to pass the time and in order to conserve as best as possible the little water we still had, we decided to implement a water plan of our own. First was the drinking water problem.


The fountain of youth?
Five minutes drive up the road was a “fuente” that locals talked excitedly about: “Healthiest water for miles…and doesn’t cost a duro……look at old toothless Paco over there, 158 this year, doesn’t eat at all, not necessary, just drinks the fountain water its that good!” This was the sort of comment we heard often but had not until now an excuse to visit the fabled fountain of youth.

So up we drove with our empty 8 litre plastic bottles. This was a practice we had accustomed ourselves to, after living in a small pueblo in Castille and Leon where despite the presence of running water in all households, locals would gather at the main fountain with bottles in hand in order to take back good drinking water and the latest juicy bit of town gossip. However our fountain was on a deserted patch of mountain road. Good for parking but sadly lacking in local gossip. So we talked amongst ourselves. I was of the opinion that toothless Paco looked rather sprightly for just 158, and was convinced I had seen him tucking into that slaughtered pig at last year’s fiesta. Had we been told a porky? And if so should we be drinking this water? Where was everyone else? Did they drink the dreaded tap water? It was fact finding time again.

FACT 1. COST: Bottled mineral water is 1000 times more expensive than tap water.
FACT 2. WASTE: Water is used in the production of plastic bottles for mineral water and fossil fuel energy is used in the transport and storage of bottled water on supermarket shelves
FACT 3. CONTAMINATION: On the 8th October 2004 Brussels released the list of the most contaminating businesses in Europe. Of the worst 73, five businesses were located in Andalusia. The first of these is a company in Malaga that produces soft drinks and mineral water.

However, using your local fountain however helps to recycle plastic bottles and helps you to be conscious of the availability and quality of water. It’s also a simple and social thing to do (when not on deserted mountain roads) and that’s important in an era when simple and social are eschewed for the complex and individual.

Clause 2: GREY WATER

The second clause in our water conservation plan involved the re-use of house water for irrigation. This water is called grey water, one suspects because of its not too attractive colour. Grey water is water taken from the shower, sink or washing machine and re-directed to irrigate the land. Obviously one has to be careful of the chemicals that get added to this mixture but it was a huge help in conserving the water that we had and ensuring the land got a percentage at least of what it deserved. It occurred to us that if there were grants for solar power, subsidies for farmers to grow crops that are in excess of EU demand, then where was the assistance and encouragement for using grey water? One survey in Australia found that up to 140 litres a day in the average household could be recycled this way.


Our final clause consisted of building earth banks around the non-drought proof plants in order to retain the water. This not only cut down hugely on irrigation water but also made each plant look very cute in its own little bowel of earth. These would also serve later as fine containers for mulch that reduced further the moisture loss from the ground.

And thus we survived our minor drought. Our parched planet though, we were forced to recognise, remained somewhat dehydrated. Though the present government is showing a laudable willingness to tackle some of these problems there still remains a desperate need to tax water in a more consistent way that may help resolve the neglect of outdated piping. Take for example the market gardening area around Valencia. Farmers here are charged on the amount of land they irrigate so water losses through bad pipes (between 20 and 40%) are often ignored.

There is still the question of tourist demands on water (pools and golf courses) as well as the protection of natural habitats: in the year 2000 on protected areas in Murcia over 3000 hectares of irrigated land was created. How is this possible and why have the authorities not fined this encroachment?

Finally, the trend for converting rural land from secano (dry) to riego (irrigated) in order to carve up smaller building plots to sell off at exorbitant prices has become endemic along the Mediterranean coast. A realistic view of what is happening and measures taken to restrict such practices by the property speculators is long overdue, both by local and provincial authorities who are prone to turn a blind eye where money is concerned.

Conservation and the construction industry, it appears, just don’t go hand in hand. Answers therefore have to be political as water is just too important a business to be left to business. Whether we are referring to intensive irrigation, building plots, swimming pools or golf courses, whether we drink mineral, bottled, spring or the humble tap variety we need to understand the language of conservation – one language even us foreigners should have to learn.

Paul Read owns Cortijo El Melion, situated on an organic olive farm in Granada's Alpujarra region.

© Copyright 2005 by & Paul Read