19th July 2024
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Spanish farmers protest ‘ecological plans’ to curb water supply for irrigation

Thousands of farmers protested in Madrid on Wednesday over the PSOE-Podemos coalition government’s plan to provide ecological protection for the Tagus river, reducing the amount of water taken from it to irrigate agricultural land in the country’s southeast.

The protesters rallied in front of Spain’s ministry for ecological transition, demanding the resignation of Minister Teresa Ribera.

Spain experienced its hottest year on record in 2022. The heat, accompanied by a long drought throughout most of the year, caused reservoirs to fall to critical levels.

Ribera had said on Tuesday that the curbs were necessary to prepare the country for the effects of climate change.

But farmers and regional politicians say it will affect livelihoods given that the region affected is a major food producer dubbed ‘the orchard of Europe’.

Murcia’s regional leader, Fernando López Meiras of the right-wing People’s Party (PP), said at the protest that the water transfer from the Tagus irrigates 70% of the fruit and vegetables exported by Spain. He warned that 25,000 jobs could be lost if the water transfer is cut off.

The Tagus is the Iberian Peninsula’s longest river, running 1,007 km from eastern Spain all the way into Portugal where it spills into the Atlantic Ocean. But relatively close to its source there is a man-made canal that re-routes some water southward to the Segura River. 

The water transfer system via pipes from reservoirs in central Spain to fruit orchards in Valencia and Murcia was one of the largest hydraulic engineering projects ever carried out in the country and contributed to its development as a major fruit and vegetable exporter.

The government is acting after the Supreme Court ruled that the Tagus must have a rate of water flow that’s considered ‘ecological’, which technicians say means it must not fall below 8.65 cubic metres per second.

The Tagus had until now a minimum of six cubic litres per second, according to a threshold that was established without taking into account ecological factors.

The government, which has not specified how the change will affect the transfer of water, said the reduction will be done gradually over five years.

The government also plans to compensate farmers by investing 8 billion euros to encourage the recycling of water and increase water desalination production that can be used instead.

‘It is a joy to see all of you here because it means the agriculture of southeastern Spain is still alive and will remain so despite the politicians we come to visit today,’ Lucas Jiménez, president of the Central Irrigation Union, told the crowd. ‘Let them leave the water in the hands of those who understand water.’

Authorities estimated that around 7,000 people attended the protest. 

Until now, the Tagus was the only river in Spain without an official ‘ecological threshold’ that used environmental criteria to establish the minimum flow it needs to ensure its ecological health, the ministry argued in defence of its decision. The decision comes after five court orders that an ecological minimum be set for the Tagus.

The ministry also argues that the Tagus has decreased by 12% since 1980 and only a stricter control will prevent episodes of it drying up completely, as occurred in 2017.

Ribera asked on Tuesday for this not to become a ‘water war’, insisting that Spain must adapt to climate change.

‘We have to prepare for two types of excess, years with long cycles of extreme drought and periods of very intense flooding,’ she said.

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