Living in the desert

Flowers in the local areas need to be irrigated by pipes

While everyone is talking about the water crises in California or Africa, almost the same issue is happening on our continent too. As it is called by the local people, European Sahara-Murcia has, for the past few decades, tried to find a way to deal with their lack of water. There everyone is involved – from the local farmers, to the politicians in the government, to the local citizens. Secret and illegal pipes, high prices of water, damaged businesses, and even more things you will find in this local fight for water.

The reason for the problem

When someone mentions Spain, we probably imagine some big mountains, huge trees around them, fresh vegetables, fruits, and really hot, but sometimes wet weather. That is what I was looking for in Murcia too. But oh boy, I was so wrong. The closer to the city the bus came, the more it appeared like a huge desert. Just some palm trees, a lot of dust, really hot, dry weather, fake grass in the middle of the park… Am I still in Europe, or is this where Africa begins?

“We still have water in taps,” – says Miriam Marin, a local student from University of Murcia. As she explained to me, Murcia really lacks of water for several reasons.

“You can find a wide variety of climates in Spain due to a number of factors. The climate in our region is a very dry Mediterranean, as we are surrounded by mountains, so it barely rains, and due to the latitude, it is very hot in the summer,” – Miriam says.

A local person is taking his siesta on a fake grass

Another reason – climate change. Because of it, it has become warmer and warmer in Murcia and rains less than in the past. For instance, as it was said in “Murcia today”, according to the state meteorological agency Aemet, this January was the warmest in the region for 50 years, and the combined months of December and January were the warmest since comparable records were kept in 1942. On 4th of January the minimum temperature in this city was 17.9 degrees Celsius.

“At some point last summer, we had +45 in the day, and around +40 degrees Celsius at night,” – says Murcia tour guide Miguel Tirado. The summer of 2015 was the third hottest in the last 75 years, with an average temperature of 26 degrees of Celsius, according to “Murcia today”.

Damage for the daily life

The lack of water problem causes some issues in people’s daily lives. According to the consumer organization FACUA, Murcia has the most expensive water in all of Spain. In a study on household water rates in 28 Spanish cities at the end of 2015, they found that there was an average monthly fee of 29.35 euros.

For instance, Slovenian volunteer Alenka Mrakovcic, who’s lived in Murcia since last September, says in her temporary home the bill of water ranges between 40 and 65 euros per month.Maybe that is why it is common to find huge packs of bottled water from the supermarket in the kitchens of most homes. Water from taps is not only expensive, but also leaves a strange taste in your mouth.

“Spain recorded the worst result (more than 60%) for the frequency of nitrates being recorded in groundwater and exceeding nitrates in drinking water and the second worst result for compliance with inland water bathing quality standards,” – according to a World Wide Fund of Nature (WWF) report at 2003.

Miriam says her family does not drink tap water and buys theirs from a market. Miguel has a water cleaning machine next to the regular tap. They say the main reason why they are doing this is that water from the tap just tastes bad. “It is because water here has a lot of lime,” – explains Miriam.

“I came from Slovenia, where the water is very good. And for me it was such a shock to not be able to drink water from a tap. Of course, it depends on which household, it is not always the same,” – Alenka says.

According to her, people in this city do not have a regular system for buying a water from shops, even though it is normal to not drink tap water. “I was doing my exchange in Turkey, there you also do not drink water from the tap, but they deliver you 20 liters of water and collect the bottles after that. And here, in Murcia, people just buying regular bottles from supermarkets and, after drinking, just throw them away. And a lot of people even do not recycle those bottles.”

Tradition of saving water

As we discussed with Miriam and a friend of hers, Carmen Martínez Funes, a student at the University of Murcia, drinking water from bottles is just a part of other local traditions in this city. “We always have this culture of saving the water. For example, when you are brushing your teeth, please close the sink. When you take a shower, do not take very long showers or take a shower instead of bath,” – Carmen says.

In Miriam’s opinion, the saving water tradition is more ethical, everyone feels that you cannot waste water, because during the summer the water situation can get even more complicated for everybody.

“Water is an essential resource for life – use it responsibly”

Miguel also shared some household traditions for saving water: “While you wash your dishes – at first you pull some water on them, after that – close the tap and pull some through, and only when open the tap of water again. You cannot keep the tap open during the whole cleaning process. Maybe it is just small things, but I think little things make big changes.”

You can also recognize that it is a tradition from some signs in the common area, which tell you to use the least amount of water as possible. These signs are posted in the restrooms of universities, bars, cafes, libraries or etc. Also, the city saves water by using fake grass in parks – real grass would need loads of water for irrigation. Along with that, cleaning companies are using the old basin water to clean the streets.

From farms to the city

According to the local citizens, the people from the countryside feel the biggest difficulties caused by this lack of water. In the past, Murcia used to be one of the biggest producers of tomatoes, lemons, oranges and olives in Spain. The main activity of this region was the agriculture. Now, because of this water issue, loads of farmers needed to stop their activity.
In 2010 there were 989,800 agricultural holdings in Spain, a 23.1% drop compared to 2000, according to Eurostat Statistics from 2012.

Fuensanta Meseguer Montoya, 85, is one of Murcia’s former farmers. She used to live in the countryside next to the city and now lives right in the city center.

In some common areas real grass was replaced by fake grass

“I was a teacher in school for kids, but before that I used to be a farmer. Mostly, when I was younger, I went to fields of vegetables and fruits, pick up them and sell to people. My father usually worked in the same place, and during my studies, I was just helping him in this agricultural work. We also had some chickens, rabbits, pigs, a goat for the milk, and a horse,” – Fuensanta says.

According to her, it used to rain a lot in Murcia when she was younger, so there was enough water to use for agriculture. “In the past, there was less people and they used less water than people today. Now the water is used for the people, not for the fields. We are using it for things we never needed to use it for.”

She says that instead of farms, nowadays a lot of people just build houses without any fields. Farmers can still try to sell their produce, but it would be way more expensive to produce them for the people, so the prices would be way too high.

As a result, the prices of citrus fruits in the Region of Murcia this year increased by up to 20%, when comparing to the start of this season to previous years, according to Valencian community media.

Illegal water usage

Another cause of the water shortage – people are trying to illegally use the water. “According to the Spanish Ministry for the Environment, there are 510,000 illegal wells in Spain. This figure implies that at least 3,600 hm3 of groundwater is extracted illegally each year, which equals the average water consumption of 58 million people,” – says the WWF report: ‘Illegal water use in Spain. Causes, effects and solutions’.

These number reveals that at least 45% of all water pumped from aquifers each year is extracted without regard to legal constraints. “In Murcia, the Public Prosecutor’s Office is investigating ‘black market’ sales of illegally abstracted water for housing developments on the coast, illegal irrigation farmers or legal ones who have run out of water – often as a result of the illegal abstractions,” – the document explains.

“Illegal use of water in Murcia and in Spain in general is a big concern, but the River Basin Authorities (RBA) are not taking decided action against it, or at least the results from these past years suggest that much more emphasis should be made to tackle with such a problem,” – says Rafael Seiz Puyuelo, an expert in water from the Water and Agriculture Programme (WWF Spain).
According to him, this is partly due to the limited human and economic resources of the RBA, especially during the last five years.

“We hope for changes regarding this situation, however the contents of the recently approved River Basin Management Plans for the next planning cycle (2016-2021) do not show significant advances in these issues,” – Rafael Seiz Puyuelo says.

So all in all, it looks like the situation of this water issue is not going to change in the near future. Unless someone will stop the global warming and bring loads of water to this southern-Europe region.