The La Vinuela reservoir is the most important water storage facility in the province of Malaga, southern Spain. But after months of no rain and an unprecedented heat wave, the reservoir, which is normally 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) long and 100 meters deep, has just 12% of its former water volume left. .
The reservoir was once a tourist attraction, but is now reduced to a mere puddle surrounded by tons of mud.
Local farmers describe the situation as dramatic. They are now allowed to use only a small fraction of the water they once redirected to their fields. The largest avocado growing area in Europe is located near the reservoir. Avocados grown here are also shipped overseas, including to German supermarkets. Without enough water, the harvest should be poor.
The trees are victims
More and more avocado trees are drying out; the ground is covered with wilted fruit. As a last resort, farmers are forced to uproot some trees so as not to lose the entire harvest. “It’s better to get rid of some trees so that the remaining ones get enough water,” says the local farmers’ association.
Domingo Medina felled 1,500 of his 6,000 avocado trees. The head of the tropical fruit growers association said many farmers were on the verge of quitting because they could no longer live from their plantations. He warns that no water might be available at all if it doesn’t rain soon and the reservoir fills up again.
When water becomes scarce, priority is given to households located in the catchment area of the reservoir.
Spain is a major exporter of avocados, with Germany being among its biggest customers
Olive growers also affected
Avocado growers are not the only ones suffering in Spain these days. The entire agricultural sector is hit by the worst drought in years, according to the Asaja Farmers’ Association. Millions of olives are drying out across Andalusia; oranges, lemons and tangerines meet the same fate in the Valencian region. In northern Spain, winegrowers are fighting an uphill battle to save some of their fruit by resorting to premature harvesting.
There is no miracle solution in sight. Meteorologists from the AEMET weather service predict that there will be no rain before October. And the situation should not change in the years to come.
“Predictions suggest that dry spells in Spain will become even longer and occur more often,” AEMET spokesman Ruben del Campo said, adding that this was clearly the result of climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
Farmers will have to reckon with drastic crop losses. Spanish olive oil producers, for example, expect their harvests to be halved this year alone. This will drive prices up even more in Europe, warns Aurelio Juzgado, who heads an association of growers.
Spain is by far the world’s largest producer of olive oil.
Agriculture wastes water?
Sunflower fields along Spanish highways are also in poor condition. Experts say yields will fall by up to a third in 2022 year-over-year. This will further drive up prices in the EU market where sunflower oil supply has been affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Both are the world’s largest oil exporters, with Spain being one of the largest suppliers to the European Union.
In response to the latest developments, German farmers have more than doubled their sunflower acreage since the start of the war in Ukraine.
The Spanish Agriculture Ministry expects grain harvests to collapse this year and beyond. According to the Efe news agency, the barley, rye and wheat harvests could fall by a quarter. Agriculture Minister Luis Planas has pledged millions of euros in aid to farmers to enable them to adopt more efficient and water-saving technologies. “We just need to use water more efficiently,” Planas said.
Environmental activists have named agriculture Spain’s biggest water waster. In many areas, outdated overhead sprinkler systems are still in use. Between 70% and 80% of Spain’s drinking water flows on arable land across the country.
The environmental organization WWF calls this “suicidal use of rare water”.
Greenpeace spokesman Julio Barea adds that Spain’s water crisis is at home. He accuses the Madrid government and local environmental agencies of a lack of foresight, saying the water-saving plans were adopted far too late.
“You have to fight droughts when there is still enough water, not when there is no more,” Barea concluded.
This article was first published in German.