Drought in Alicante

I wrote last week that I would write further on the Alicante drought situation, and I have been writing a case study for my A-level Geography students, so here is perhaps more than you expected on the subject (!)

Water resource issues: Drought in the Alicante Region 2014

In late 2013 it became clear that a serious water shortage was beginning in Alicante and a year later it is now clear that the province has been hit by a major drought.  This case study describes and examines the causes and effects of this drought, in Alicante and looking at particular examples in the Marina Baixa / Benidorm area, then makes an assessment of the current drought management solutions.

  1. Water supply and climate in Alicante

Alicante is in the the south east of Spain which is the driest region of mainland Europe, and it is even suggested it is the driest populated region in the world. So it is not surprising in itself that it has always experienced problems with water supply including cycles of drought.  It is simply more noticeable at some times than others and the degree of shortage goes through regular cycles.

A recent article studying the complexities of the water problem in this region confirms the seriousness of this shortage: precipitation in the province of Alicante is at its lowest for a hundred years.[1]  The regional climate pattern shows that extreme droughts are a natural hazard and the records show that they occur in three to four year periods: 1983-1986; 1992-1996; 1997-2000; 2004-2008.

Naturally, when we examine the causes of drought, precipitation as the main input needs to be the starting point. Precipitation is scarce and totals just 350 mm on average. It is intense and irregular, usually concentrated into a few days in autumn, mostly in October when 80 % of average annual rainfall can fall in a few hours, often causing instant floods due to surface runoff.[2]  The table below shows mean monthly precipitation (all precipitation including rain, snow and hail) in Alicante. This shows the average figure and clearly the autumn months are the period of peak rainfall.

average-rainfall-spain-alicante

That is what happens typically, but in this normally wet season in 2014 there was only a two-day period in September and October in which the rain fell. It was the first rainfall since mid-May. If the main input into the hydrological system of Alicante is missed during this period, it is unlikely that the aquifers of the region will be properly recharged until the same period the following year, and if the precipitation is at such a low figure again in 2015, the cycle of drought will have even more serious consequences.

Looking further into cause of the water shortage we can point to climate change and rising temperatures in the region. This would account for both the decrease in precipitation and the increased surface water loss due to evaporation.  Unlike other countries with Mediterranean climate south eastern Spain  is also affected by dry air from the Sahara which at times dominate the weather (and this is regularly evidenced in the red-orange dust that is deposited after rainfall on cars and other surfaces that make it plainly visible).

 

  1. The impact of drought in Alicante

We can see that the impact of drought might be felt by three distinct sectors: urban settlements, agriculture and environmentally sensitive areas. The previous droughts mentioned above did not interrupt the supply of water to urban areas due to the new infrastructure put in place during the 1970s when a pipeline was constructed into and through the Alicante region to bring water from the Tajo-Segura river basin precisely to address the shortages during the regular periods of drought. Also Spanish law since 2000 has required water agencies for each of the main river basins in the peninsula to draw up a drought management plan. These are called SDPs: Special Drought Plans. As a result of the water management priorities built into these plans, urban water supply is given priority over other sectors. The reason for this may be thought self-evident, as people need water in all aspects of life for everyday living. However, it is also a political problem because people living in urban settlements do not want restrictions placed on their water use, and some water is used for non-essential purposes, e.g swimming pools, car washing, water parks, etc.  Local politicians who told their voters they were not allowed to fill their swimming pools – with the hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of water this requires – would be vulnerable to losing their seats in future elections!

The main economic factor in the region’s expanding urbanisations is tourism and this is another reason why urban water resources must be safeguarded.

 

  1. Historical water management in Alicante

The historic need to collect and store water, then transfer this precious resource to places where it was needed, results in Alicante having a historic hydrological monument: the oldest dam in Europe was built in the 17th century to hold the flood waters of the Vinalopó river in the period of heavy rainfall and use this water for irrigation over the dry period.[3]  We can go even further back into the past and look at the sophisticated water engineering of the Islamic period, when many of the existing patterns of terraced fields were constructed, and carefully measured to allow the gradient of the drop to distribute water channels over the greatest possible area.  In upland areas these water channels were fed by natural streams, for example the water channel system around Sella which distributes water served by limestone aquifers in the Sierra Aitana. In the flat lands nearer to the sea, the water channels for agriculture were served by wells, including the mechanised noria (an Arab word) powered by a mule or donkey providing a regular flow through a chain of revolving buckets.  Storage was either in a communal cisterna – an open water tank serving a settlement – or an aljibe which was an individual covered water deposit where a whole year’s water could be stored for one household.  In addition, household water was historically provided from wells and also by mobile water sellers transporting water in carts, and examples can be seen of this in Benidorm even into the late 1960s.

noria photo

Cross section of the noria and water table; and an example in Benidorm still in use in the 1950s

Clearly all of these historic methods of collecting, storing and transferring water were adequate for a small population in a primary economy where the largely agricultural and fishing communities were feeding themselves and trading their surplus even as far as Madrid.  But the exponential population growth coinciding with the tourist economy and the rapid development of Spain in the last decades of the twentieth century placed immense and noticeable strains on the water supply.

In the 1970s Benidorm ran out of water and had to be temporarily served by Spanish navy tanker ships moored off the Levante beach, which created a very poor image of the resort and damaged its reputation for several years.  Meanwhile individual hotels dug their own wells to draw water from the aquifers below, and that action led to over-extraction of fresh water, in turn leading to seawater contamination and salination of the aquifers. Eventually, the water problems of Benidorm were solved temporarily by the construction of the Guadalest reservoir pipeline, a system of exchange with the Amadorio reservoir but this still meant reliance on local precipitation and it was not enough. The building of a desalination plant at Sierra Helada, converting seawater to urban piped water, provided important additional supplies, but desalination is very expensive, and in any case one desalination plant is not enough.

Clearly the reliance of such a growing population on the local water supply would eventually lead to the over-extraction of water from aquifers, which are finite in a period of low precipitation.  The reservoirs at Guadalest and the Amadorio are nearly exhausted, as the snow melt from the high mountains in winter is now minimal. As with Marina Baixa and Benidorm, our local example, these problems of water scarcity are now being felt across the entire Alicante province.

 

  1. Effects of the present drought

Farmers are major users of water resources and Alicante has significant areas of farmland devoted to fruit growing, but the growing population, urbanisation and tourist resort development in the region, means that the impact of the 2014 drought has consequently fallen mainly on agriculture. In the competition for a scarce resource, farmers are given a lower priority. No matter how significant traditional agriculture may be,  it is seen as a secondary part of the Alicante economy.  Urban areas have been given normal water supplies while thousands of hectares of fruit trees are dry and dying.  Farmers are going out of business and the loss to the Alicante economy is estimated at 350,000 Euros.

 

 

Municipalities, while they are not short of water for urban needs, are paying a much higher price. Due to European legislation, more water is also being assigned to environmental issues[4] which will remove water resources from other areas (presumably agriculture will again remain a low priority).

 

  1. More recent water management solutions

Alicante  province can truly be seen as a model for water management and consumption in Spain, as individual consumers only use 100 litres of water each: that is half the daily average for the country as a whole.[5]  While this may be a good example for other areas, it still doesn’t solve the supply problems and Alicante needs water from outside the region.  This is, in other words, a national government question needing a large scale infrastructure solution and not simply a local onethat can be addressed by the local economy.

Since 1979 the region has benefited from the Tajo-Segura pipeline – a major construction project which brought water up from the south – but there are limits to the amount of water this can supply and it still did not meet the needs of all sectors of Alicante.  That pipeline was the southern end of a trans-basin project: the Júcar-Vinalopó pipeline which is projected to bring 12 hm3 annually to Alicante.  Funding for this project included 120 million Euros from Brussels, but there were administrative objections blocking the supply from Valencia in the north. It has taken the present drought crisis in Alicante to move the discussions forward, and finally in November 2014 an agreement was reached in Madrid regarding the different competing regional water interests. The pipeline from the Júcar would finally open in January 2015.

So it is clear that the solution to the drought crisis in Alicante is not within the capacity of local decision-making but can only be provided by new levels of water administration and finance involving both Spanish national government agencies and European funding.  As with many water-stressed parts of the world, Alicante’s drought problems involve negotiation and decision-making far from its own local administrators and the supply, storage and transfer of water is now a much more complex business than in the days of the aquifers, water channels and norias that once served a smaller population and a primary economy.

[1] Juan G.R., “The water problem in the Valencian Community and Murcia is complicated.” Water and Irrigation. .: Vol 5, No. 1: 29-30, September, 2014, Spain (Online 04/11/14: http://www.aguayriego.com/en/2014/09/el-problema-del-agua-en-la-comunidades-valenciana-y-de-murcia-se-complica)

[2] Auernheimer C., Almenar R., Chapín F. Tourism, agriculture and the environment. The case of

the province of Alicante, Spain. In : Camarda D. (ed.), Grassini L. (ed.). Interdependency between

agriculture and urbanization: Conflicts on sustainable use of soil and water. Bari : CIHEAM, 2001. p. 171-

194 (Options Méditerranéennes : Série A. Séminaires Méditerranéens; n. 44)

[3] The oldest dam in Europe is in Alicante.” Weekly You first. No 38, Year 2, 17-23 January, Alicante, 2012.  (Online 04/11/14: http://www.aguayriego.com/en/2012/03/el-pantano-mas-viejo-de-europa-es-alicantino)

[4] http://www.eu-drought.org

[5] Información 23 October 2014,  p.11, quoting Asunción Martínez, president of Fundación Aquae.

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About Gareth Thomas

A fairly mixed career starting as an aircraft technician and later Franciscan friar eventually led into secondary school teaching. I settled in Spain where I teach Geography part-time and spend the rest of my time looking after the needs of four donkeys in a remote location in the mountains in the Costa Blanca. I have three blogs: a geography blog and a donkey blog begun in 2015, plus an old donkey blog which ran from 2010 to 2015.
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One Response to Drought in Alicante

  1. Wendy says:

    Hi Gareth – what incredible research and conclusions you have come to regarding Alicante’s water supply issues 🙂 Even though they have supplemented the supply with desalinated water from a new plant, do you happen to know if that will be enough to alleviate further droughts? And what happens if – God forbid – electricity goes out for any reason – will there be serious water shortages in the city of Alicante and surrounding areas? I sure would appreciate your professional opinion! Thanks! Wendy

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