'Without water, we are nothing!': Spain's crippling drought reignites tensions over Tagus river
Ricardo Ferri, a farmer who lost all of his cereals because of the drought, shows his dessicated soil after 100 days without rain. © Mehdi Chebil

An early scorching heatwave across Spain has worsened the impact of the country's long-term drought, causing unprecedented damage to the country's crops. As farmers grow desperate for irrigation, the government's plan to limit the rerouting of water from the nation's longest river – the Tagus – for agricultural purposes lies at the centre of a heated debate. FRANCE 24 reports.

The mathematics of drought are extremely simple for Ricardo Ferri, a Spanish farmer from the Valencian community: after 100 days without rain, he has lost 100% of his crops.

The earth on his 55-hectare property is deeply desiccated. Wheat plants are only a quarter of the size they should be – they've basically stopped growing since the last rainfall in early February. It's as if time has been suspended.

"Wherever you look, the soil is completely dry, there is not a single drop of humidity! It's the first time I've lost everything because of the drought ... It's the same for all cereal farmers in this area," Ferri told FRANCE 24.

The problem is far from being limited to this single region. The Coordinator of Farmers and Ranchers Organizations (COAG) warned in mid-April that the country's long-term drought was causing "irreversible losses" to more than 5 million hectares of crops in Andalusia (south), Extremadura (east), Castilla-La Mancha (centre), and Murcia (south-east).

Cereals such as wheat and barley are the worst impacted because a drastic shortage of water in spring means that the grain will not be harvested in summer – even if rain returns. Farmers like Ferri have written the harvest off completely, hoping to get some emergency aid to cope with the financial fallout.

Even crops known for their adaptation to a dry climate, such as nuts and olives, are now being threatened.

"My almond trees have already begun to shed some of their fruits because the tree has to save water for its own survival," said Ferri.

Their long-term prospects are not good either. Spain and the Mediterranean as a whole are expected to be one of the fastest warming regions of the world in coming years, according to climate experts.

"I'm not a scientist, I don't know how much of this is linked to global warming. But I've seen with my own eyes that we are now going from winter to summer without transition. Here you can have zero degrees, and a week later, it's nearly 30 degrees," said Ferri.

"I don't want to give up and sell the farm, but if I get more years like this, I will have no other choice."

The view from Rogelio Rios' property. He cultivates organic lemons on 25 hectares of land in La Pedrera, near Murcia.The view from Rogelio Rios' property. He cultivates organic lemons on 25 hectares of land in La Pedrera, near Murcia. © Mehdi Chebil

As the drought intensifies, irrigation has become more vital than ever to Spanish farmers. Its effects on the landscape are spectacular. About 120 kilometers south of Alcoy, the surroundings of Murcia are covered with lush green plantations of lemon trees. It feels a world apart from Ferri's dried-up cereal fields.

Irrigating the 'vegetable garden of Europe'

"All that you see here didn't exist in my grand-parents' days," Rogelio Rios, a 52 year-old farmer, told FRANCE 24 from a hill overlooking his estate. "The region then looked like Africa. Yield was low, and agriculture limited to cereals, olives, almonds and a few fruits like melons. Back then, we had to live with the uncertainty of rainfall."

It's only with modern irrigation and the inauguration in 1979 of a large water transfer network bringing water from the Tagus river that this part of Spain overcame poverty. Murcia and the neighboring provinces of Almeria and Alicante now provide a large part of the fresh agricultural products found on supermarket shelves across Europe.

"Here we have had a drought for the last 200 years," grinned Rios. "We're used to it and we've managed to adapt thanks to the latest technology to save water."

Virtually all farmers in the area use modern drip irrigation systems, where remote-controlled pipes make water trickle directly into the root zone. Some recent systems have sensors buried 30 and 70 cms underground, which automatically send an alert to the farmer's smartphone if the humidity level becomes too low.

Modern technology has given local farmers a sense of confidence that they would be able to limit the damages caused by droughts. They believe they can mostly carry on as usual – despite skepticism from environmental groups over the sustainability of such an intensive model of fruit production.

Farmers in Murcia are actually more concerned that the worsening drought in other parts of Spain could lead the government to drastically reduce the amount of water transferred from the Tagus river to the Murcia region.

"I am more afraid of politicians cutting the Tagus-Segura Trasvase (the Spanish name for the water transfer network of 300 kilometers of canals, tunnels, and reservoirs) than of global warming," said Rios. "We can always adapt to harsher climate conditions. But without water, we are nothing!".

Madrid's decision in February to set and enforce what it calls an "ecological flow" – a minimum water level for the Tagus that would automatically limit the quantity that can be diverted – has raised alarm among farmers in southern Spain.

"Cutting the Trasvase would put the vegetable garden of Europe in danger," warned José Vicente Andreu, president of the Alicante branch of ASAJA, a farmers union. "Water would become even more rare and expensive. That would decrease our yield and force us to increase our prices. We would become less competitive." If that happens, some 15.000 agricultural jobs out of 100.000 could disappear, according to the SCRATS, a farmers lobby group.

'Sacrificed for irrigation'

But in Castilla-La Mancha, a central region extending east and south of Madrid, the government's plan to reduce the amount of water transferred from the Tagus to Murcia has been warmly welcomed.

"We have been sacrificed for the profits of another region," Ricardo Ortega, the owner of a boating company on a reservoir fed by the Tagus river, told FRANCE 24. The artificial lake water, created in the 1950s, is now several dozen meters below where it was. Once know as "Madrid’s beach", it has became a sad place where several tourist activities, such as fishing, have almost disappeared.

"Since the Trasvase was inaugurated, we are not living, we are just surviving. The economy is doing badly. Youths are leaving, businesses are closing," lamented Ortega.

Tensions over water rerouting between different regions are reaching boiling point as Spain prepares for regional and local elections on May 28.

The stakes are high. Farmers interviewed by FRANCE 24 insisted that water was a public good whose access was an existential matter.

"Basically we have two sort of agricultures in Spain. There are growers working in secano – dry climates – who depend on rain, and those who have access to irrigation," said Rios, the owner of the lemon farm in Murcia.

"Farmers without irrigation are now on the verge of losing everything."