The image is that of an infinity of rows of closely spaced dwarf trees that span thousands of hectares. Olive trees with hardly any trunk. All branches. Turned into bushes because, at this rate, they double the usual economic return. Thus, on the edge of the Tabernas Desert, the driest and driest area in Europe has become a center for the production of highly intensive irrigated olive groves. The price? Depleting the groundwater on which they are grown. Open the door to the advance of desertification that the climate crisis pushes through the vulnerable southeast of the Iberian peninsula.
The N340a road runs between the Almerian municipalities of Tabernas and Sorbas. It is the axis that crosses an area where rain is rare. “The region with the most hours of sunshine in Europe” advertise the labels of the olive oil produced here. In fact, rainfall does not reach 200 mm a year. To the right and left of this axis, agricultural farms based on irrigation have been expanding. In water.
“Intensive irrigation came in the 1990s and by 2000 the first springs had dried up, the highest, such as that of Góchar,” laments Andrés Pérez, who lives in the municipality of Sorbas. “But it is that in the last five or six years it has multiplied a lot and has become superintensive,” concludes this neighbor who has seen the transformation of the region in the forefront. The triangle formed by the towns of Tabernas, Sorbas and Uleila del Campo is a landscape of parcels of brown soil broken campaign after campaign and an olive green layer above. Data from the Andalusian Institute of Statistics confirm Andrés’ impression. The irrigated olive groves have multiplied by 20 between 2009 and 2018, reaching 4,700 hectares.
Each specimen, which does not lift more than two and a half meters, receives a line that dispenses the liquid and the agrochemicals calculated to maximize production. A meter and a half, a partner. And then another. And other. And other. Superintensive farms range from 1,500 to 2,000 trees per hectare.
These hundreds of thousands of designer olive trees are rapidly drinking the fossil water accumulated thousands of years ago in the depth of the Aguas river aquifer. An aquifer that supports decades of recognized overexploitation. The technicians of the Andalusian Mediterranean Basins Demarcation have not tired of leaving it in writing: in 2000 the extractions exceeded the average resources by more than 20%. By 2015, his calculations had skyrocketed to an extraction 200% above what was available. “The increase in pumping in recent years, mainly for irrigation, has given rise to a current situation of absolute unsustainability,” can be read in the aquifer’s technical data sheets. This tank is recharged each year with 7.6 hm3. This means that 5.61 hm3 can be used. But each course is removed, 16.92 hm3. Each time it is sucked from deeper levels where the water has been standing for millennia.
“Tabernas is a case of book desertification”, describes the researcher from the Ramón Margalef Institute at the University of Alicante, Jaime Martínez Valderrama. Doctor in Agricultural Engineering, Martínez Valderrama lives in Almería and has spent hours and hours analyzing the degradation that the multiplication of the superintensive olive industry has generated in this area.
“Desertification has two legs. On the one hand, climatic changes and on the other inadequate human activities,” recalls the researcher who in briefly publish the results of the work. “In Tabernas, a finite resource is being depleted with the massive extraction of water. As the natural and economic systems become unbalanced and thresholds that are not reversible are exceeded, they lead to desertification.”
Martínez Valderrama has been able to verify on the spot how the forecast released by the Spanish Office for Climate Change of the Government in 2005: “The aridization of the climate and the loss of organic soil material would also promote desertification processes, which currently seriously affect a third of the Spanish surface, especially in the south and eastern peninsula.”
Now, the engineer describes that “we have verified how, in a very fast process of 10 or 15 years, there is no rest of the relief in many farms. The heights have disappeared. A difference in meters. Not that the plot has been eroded, is that they have finished with the relief: a monoculture on a plain “.
High production and profitability are behind this agricultural formula that leads to the advance of desertification. Setting up such a farm costs about 6,000 euros per hectare, but it pays for itself after six years since “the collection costs are reduced by 50%”, they explain in the Agritech chair at the Polytechnic University of Cartagena. Being bushes, a machine does the job. “We are facing an investment with a high profitability that is being implemented by farmers and investors who seek to maximize the benefits of their farms,” they add.
One of the main entrepreneurs of this model in this zero zone of desertification is the Almería group Carrión, which has preferred not to answer eldiario.es about the environmental implications of this production model.
In the absence of water from the sky, it is sought underground
The super-intensive olive grove imposes an environmental impact. In fact, the Andalusian Government decided in October 2019 to prohibit the nightly harvesting of olives in olive groves in hedges as it did not know what damage the harvesting of the harvesters by the trees has been causing to the bird populations. The resolution was written for this last campaign 2019-2020.
“The high efficiency of hedge cultivation enables lower water consumption,” said chair director Agritech Lola Gómez. All in all, each open hectare in Tabernas or Sorbas needs at least 3,000 cubic meters of liquid. In the absence of water from the sky, it is searched underground.
The hydrogeologist at the University of Almería, José María Calaforra, explains how the multiplication of boreholes and wells drawing water from underground has brought down the level of the aquifer. “In Almería, the use of groundwater has created the image that it is infinite, because it cannot be seen. It is drilled and comes out.” The amount of water withdrawn from the underground reservoir has caused “now they are looking for it at depths of 400 meters, in a layer of metamorphic rocks.”
In his university office, Calaforra describes the situation that has been found in Tabernas: the agro-intensive model has resulted in “having authentic aquaculturists who, as they bought land to form large farms, accumulated water use rights associated with the smallholdings that have It has been added. There are several hundred concessions granted that add up to more or less 40 hm3. Far above the water actually available. An agricultural bubble with virtual water has been created “, analyzes the hydrogeologist who locates the origin of the problem in the requalification of forest soils in agricultural. “This is the consequence of those political decisions.”
Support this statement the Hydrographic Demarcation that, in January 2020, warned of the “particularly intense growth” of irrigation in this area. “Traditional drylands and even grasslands are transformed into intensive or super-intensive irrigated olive groves,” they warn, while underlining that “irregular and uncontrolled” uses are concentrated in the places with the most water deficits since, after all , are “those with the highest economic profitability” of this resource.
The sneak spring
“The Aguas River has a sneak that is warning of how the water is depleted: the Los Molinos spring that has told us that the aquifer had changed,” says Calaforra. “Based on drilling and extraction, the aquifer recharge area has narrowed and the water does not reach the spring as before, so it has gone from measuring flow rates of up to 120 liters per second to now being 10 or 15 liters. It should be borne in mind that a drop of rain entering through Tabernas, in the area of the boreholes, would easily take 50 years to exit through the spring. ” Due to this upwelling, an annual average of 40 liters per second came out in the period 1970-2000. The average measured now is 7.28 liters per second.
This spring is about 17 km in a straight line from the heart of the dwarf olive fields. “I have been living here for 30 years and have never seen what we see now,” says David Dene, an Englishman who moved to Almería decades ago and lives in the village of Los Molinos, on the banks of the river. “At this time of the year the river came here,” he points out the plaster walls of the course of the Aguas river at chest height. “Now look” – and he bends down to position himself a few centimeters away from the current. “A pool formed here,” he says as he proceeds along the path that leads to the Nacimiento del Río Aguas sign, a source that was almost dry in February 2020 (current leaks are now sprouting lower and with a decreasing flow). For Dene, born in the north of England 70 years ago, the spring testifies to how the water stays in the thousands of olive trees in Tabernas. “And it kills the ecological corridor of the river. Kill an oasis in the middle of an arid climate expansion zone. ”
Despite the fact that, at least since 2009, the hydrological plans establish that this aquifer suffers from “absolute unsustainability”, it was not until July 2018 when the Andalusian Government published a resolution to “improve the quantitative and qualitative status”. Among the measures, it was forced to form a community of users of these groundwater to stop the looting. The constitution assembly was delayed until September 29, 2019.
Speaking to eldiario.es, the secretary of the user community, Antonio Vallverdú, insisted that “groundwater will no longer be extracted in exchange for the water from the Carboneras desalination plant.” A pumping of water from the coast that was already advertised by the public company Acuamed in 2008. Andrés Pérez, from Sorbas, contrasts that “what is being talked about in that community of users? It seems that only the water from the desalination plant matters, not improving the aquifer. Desalinated water is much more expensive so they will continue to drill wells. The resignation is very large. ”
The researcher Martínez Valderrama adds that desertification is related to the fact that the “ephemeral wealth that is created by consuming the resources above the possibilities leads to the destruction of the economy of the area.”
While extracting all that water above what was possible to support the super-intensive irrigation model in this area of the south-eastern peninsula, in 2016, the Ministry of the Environment warned in writing that climate change would aggravate desertification in Spain, especially in the areas of dry and semi-arid climate. The map that illustrated the work already marked in red the fields of Tabernas.