Farmers, developers at war over water

THIS MORNING I woke to find light filtering into the bedroom and when I opened the shutters, I did so cautiously. Outside, the sunlight was almost blinding.

Across the broad, misty valley, 20 kilometres away, the magnificent peak of El Lujar shone in the morning light, like Wordsworth’s 18th century London, “all bright and glittering in the smokeless air.”

To see the sun was a helluva relief because I was beginning to think I was in the wrong country. All week, on the phone to Ireland, I heard about the marvellous weather, people out sunbathing, beach walking, having dinner on the terrace at eight o’clock in the evening, and so on. Here, in “sunny Spain“, there was sleet, hail, snow, fog and rain for four days in a row. Grey, depressing light, like Ireland in February. Waking to find it had all changed, I walked out, savoured the morning air, the spring in it, the pastel green of the lime trees, the blossom on the cherry, a blackbird singing. My heart soared as high as El Lujar.

However, while my spirits soared, the locals spirits continue to nose-dive. This year’s summer drought threatens to be the worst in living memory. We hear that future wars will be about water: here, they have already begun. There is no violence, but the anger of the people of the Alpujarras is palpable when the subject of water is raised. The golf courses and apartment development down at the coast are taking their birthright, and leaving the mountain fields to die of thirst.

As a result of local agitation, work on the Los Merino double golf course scheme, near Ronda, with 800 houses and three luxury hotels, all to be built on virgin woodland declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve, has been suspended. Meanwhile, corruption in planning departments has touched almost every town hall along the Costas and 21 are under investigation.

We read of a lady major who had €948,000 worth of work done on her home: she thought the municipal workers were coming in only to build her a small, inexpensive extension but came home to find her floor dug up, the roof off, etc., and, assuming the municipal engineer knew what he was doing left them to it and, surprise, surprise, found she had a million euro job ...

The issue of the building of new reservoirs is equally tainted with suspicions of corruption. Those in favour say that the reservoirs are required in order to direct some of the Sierra Nevada snow water that traditionally feeds Alpujarra fields to less fortunate farmers in the drier coastal range, the Contraviesa. This is, say the reservoir proposers, simply a humane gesture. No, say the demonstrators that now, almost weekly, gather in one or other of the Alpujarra villages: the water won’t go to small farmers, like themselves, but to feed holiday apartment blocks, golf course and vast plastic greenhouses that should never have been built in deserts in the first place. They allege that officials who seek to rubber stamp these reservoirs are in cahoots with water thieves who will think nothing of seeing the beautiful and self-sustaining region of the Alpujarra, made up of small farms, die of thirst, and the Sierra Nevada National Park, one of the finest in Europe, wither.

A Spanish golf course consumes as much water as a town of 12,000 people. It is extraordinary to think that the fields of peasant farmers who have sustained themselves and their families for centuries should die so that some well-heeled passing visitors should enjoy a game of golf.

Illegal wells are another issue along the coast. As mountain water is absorbed by industrial scale agriculture and fails to reach the Mediterranean (but reaches us in Ireland, in Spanish tomatoes) the sea becomes saltier. As the underground aquifers are emptied by illegal wells, sea water is sucked in through the rock, making the whole water table salt or brackish.

Like everyone who lives in these mountains, we get our drinking water from the pipes installed in every Alpujarra hamlet.

This water is untouched by chemicals, coming straight from mountain springs. A famous pipe, on a mule path outside the village nearest to us, Ferreirola, delivers effervescent water, with a delicious tang of iron. It makes the teeth tingle and a burp is guaranteed after drinking it. We keep a bottle on the dinner table as a digestif. Vichy water, eat your heart out.

Later on this morning, as I went to buy bread, I saw a golden eagle wheeling slowly in the blue sky high above one of the white villages. An enormous bird, it looked majestic in the clear, morning light.

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