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Last Updated: Monday, 13 June 2005, 13:21 GMT 14:21 UK
Iberian misery as drought bites
Cracked reservoir bed in Alcora, eastern Spain
Spanish reservoirs are dry, crops are failing and livestock dying
Spain and Portugal are suffering one of the worse droughts on record, with far-reaching economic consequences - from the closure of swimming pools to the loss of crops and livestock.

The BBC's Katya Adler spoke to Spaniards bracing themselves for a hard, hot summer.

"I can't bear it," muttered Maria, a pensioner jostling with a number of others at the local market cafe stand.

Their determined struggle was centred around getting as close a humanly possible to the lone fan in the covered market, propped up on the bar counter.

"This heat will be the death of me," said Maria. "If it's this bad in June. I don't even want to think about July and August."

HAVE YOUR SAY
Many areas are already completely devastated by years of imposed droughts
Maria Amparo, Alicante, Spain

This sort of exchange is not unusual for the time of year. Madrilenos whinge their way through the winter months, counting the days until the summer. But as soon as the temperatures climb, out come their frowns again, as well as their fans.

This year though, they really have something to grumble about. After an unusually dry winter, Spain is experiencing its worst drought since weather records began, back in 1947.

Water rationed

Spaniards normally celebrate the beginning of June, when the country's public swimming pools open. Right now though, many of them are empty.

Water is being rationed across half of the country to save it for domestic use just as the tourist season starts.

The livestock farmers in the Castile-Leon region are in crisis - there's no grass to feed eight million sheep
Miguel Blanco,
Spokesman for Confederation of Farmers and Stock Breeders

Spain attracts more than 50 million foreign visitors a year. Most of them arrive in June-September.

The eastern parts of Spain are worst affected by the drought.

Especially hit are the big tourist centres of the Costa Brava and around Alicante. Golf clubs have been told to cut back on the sprinklers, public showers on the south-eastern beaches of Murcia have been switched off. In cities like Barcelona, fountains are dry.

But the state tourist board, TourEspana, says the situation is under control.

"Spain is used to dry spells in the summer," it says. "Some years are worse than others but we've learned to deal with the situation effectively. We can't deny there is a particular problem this summer, but tourists should rest assured. There's a warm welcome awaiting them in Spain and there's plenty of water to go round."

Tourism is Spain's biggest earner. The worry here, of course, is that visitors will be put off by the reports of water shortages.

In an attempt to calm fears, Spanish government ministers have set aside 300 million euros (200m) to ease the water problem, which is normally left to Spain's regional governments to handle.

Farming crisis

The money will be needed.

This is not just a problem of empty swimming pools. Reservoir levels are down an average of 40% compared with the same time last year. Some are already three-quarters empty.

To make matters worse, water distribution is unequally spread between the temperate north and the hot and arid south.

Spain's Environment Minister Cristina Narbona says the effects of the drought have been exacerbated because previous governments never made water distribution a top priority.

Farmer picks up dead sheep in Portugal
Portuguese farmers have been feeling the effects for months
She has announced a number of measures aimed at redressing the balance, including reactivating disused canals and wells and opening connections between rivers and reservoirs in different parts of Spain.

She has also guaranteed drinking water for everyone this summer.

Drinking water, though, only amounts to about 20% of Spain's water usage and the drought is proving disastrous for Spanish farmers.

Miguel Blanco is a spokesman for Spain's Confederation of Farmers and Stock Breeders.

"All the centre and the south of the country has lost at least half of its cereal crop because of this drought," he said. "In some areas the entire crop is ruined. Also, the livestock farmers in the Castile-Leon region are in crisis. There's no grass to feed eight million sheep."

Jesus Calvo, a farmer in the eastern Spanish region of Zaragoza, says: "We're going to need six really good years to recover everything we've lost with this drought. And who can assure us we'll sell what little we have got? Sometimes, when things like this happen I think about throwing in the towel, but we don't know anything different."

Rising costs

Low water levels in rivers, reservoirs and streams are having an adverse effect on Spain's fishing industry, too.

Some aid is on the way from the national and from regional governments and EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas has also promised to help drought-blighted farmers and fishermen. But losses caused by the drought are already estimated to reach more than 1bn euros (668,000).

Tourists in Madrid
Spain's tourist industry fears people will be put off by water shortages
As fishermen and farmers feel the pinch, so, inevitably, does the Spanish shopper.

Beef prices have shot up 14% in line with increased prices for cereal-based animal feeds. Tomato prices rose 11% last month and are now 54% higher than the same time last year.

Canary Island banana prices are up 38% on last year. The drought also threatens to ruin melon, water-melon, olive, vegetable and citrus crops. Any surviving produce is clearly more expensive.

Antonio Santiago is a grocer in central Madrid: "Not all prices have gone up but enough for the consumer to feel it in their pockets. I certainly notice the difference because people are beginning to buy less."

Lucia Heredia works in the florist next door: "The drought is disastrous for business. There are a lot less flowers in the warehouses this year and during a drought like this flowers are the last thing people buy."

Spain's agricultural sector fears another devastating long-term effect of the drought. Spanish producers have invested a lot of effort in creating a strong export position. However, the current situation means they can no longer satisfy market demands and they worry that regular customers will turn to Spain's competitors in Italy, Chile, Morocco, Brazil or Mexico.

Fire threat

The drought in Spain is also causing strife with its equally parched neighbour, Portugal.

Portugal has demanded six million euros (4m) in compensation from Spain after levels of water in the Douro river fell below limits established in a bilateral agreement.

The sources of many of Portugal's big rivers are in Spain and Lisbon has accused its Iberian neighbour of stealing its water.

Forest fire in Boticas, Portugal, July 2004
With dry weather comes the risk of forest fires
Reserves along the Douro are down to around 50% just as the summer starts and the Spanish authorities have admitted they will probably have to pay up.

Two-thirds of Portugal is currently suffering the effects of this year's drought.

After a week of forest fires, the Portuguese public fear a repeat of the summer scenario two years ago, when a spate of wildfires left 20 people dead and destroyed more than 400,000 hectares of land.

Portugal's former conservative government promised a new fire prevention campaign but it fell in an early general election and the delivery of new firefighting equipment has been delayed. Many Portuguese say they feel unprotected.

A headline this week in the Correio de Manha newspaper screamed "Fire fought without means!" and also showed a photo of a man using a bucket of water to put out towering flames.

Portuguese Interior Minister Antonio Costa said ensuring year-round equipment for firefighters was a top priority. He blamed the delay on the previous government and said the situation would be resolved by next year.

In the meantime though, forest fires are already ravaging parts of the Iberian peninsula and with no significant rainfall predicted until the autumn, the authorities both in Portugal and Spain have warned the public to be vigilant.


SEE ALSO:
Drought leaves Europe's farmers helpless
30 Jul 03 |  Science/Nature
Spain in grip of fresh heatwave
01 Jul 04 |  Europe
Country profile: Spain
14 Jul 04 |  Country profiles


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