Galicia drought

“You turn on the tap one day and suddenly nothing comes out”

Plan to divert river to supply water to Vigo meets with resistance in drought-affected countryside

Nieves leads her 400 sheep to drink at a local reservoir because of a lack of water at her farm.
Nieves leads her 400 sheep to drink at a local reservoir because of a lack of water at her farm.óscar corral

The region of Galicia in Spain’s northwest is famous for its mists and rain. But a prolonged drought is hitting farmers hard, while regional authorities are eyeing dramatic measures including the diversion of rivers to ensure urban water supplies are guaranteed.

Most people have been forced to buy their fodder elsewhere, which means most farms will chalk up a loss this year María Páez, stockbreeder

“It’s as dry as a desert,” says stockbreeder María Páez in the district of Viana do Bolo in Galicia’s Ourense province – ground zero for the drought and a place that hasn’t seen rainfall worth the name in 18 months. “There have been a few drops but it doesn’t help.”

Meanwhile, in the same district, the shepherd Nieves has been forced to run her 400 sheep a distance of more than 10 kilometers to find food and water for them. Nieves cannot give her animals industrial feed because she is involved in a project to revive the native Galician sheep (ovella galega) breed and would lose her certification if she did so.

“Most people have been forced to buy their fodder elsewhere, which means most farms will chalk up a loss this year,” says Páez, who is also a local representative of the Unións Agrarias union. “When [the city of Vigo] is at risk of running out of water, the regional government diverts water but there are 10,000 cows and 18,000 sheep here that don’t have anything to eat and no one cares,” she says.

Official data in Galicia shows the gravity of the situation. An organization linked to the Galician government said recently that water flows in the region’s rivers was 80% lower than usual for this time of year while the flow rate of the Miño River – the region’s longest – as it passes by Ourense is currently 34 cubic meters per second against a usual flow of 220 cubic meters per second.

The Miño-Sil hydrography confederation has admitted 30% of water is lost in the supply process

The metropolitan area of Vigo, home to almost half a million people, only has water reserves for two months. As an emergency precaution, the Galician government is now looking at diverting the Verdugo River – a project with a cost of €5.5 million and that has the backing of Vigo City Hall. Galicia’s environment chief Beatriz Mato says that all the necessary environmental safeguards will be in place and that the water supply of localities along the river will not be affected. But local authorities and residents in communities that depend on the river have come out in opposition against the plans.

One of those localities is the municipality of Ponte Caldelas, where 26 of the total 33 population centers are already suffering water-supply problems. The devastating fires of October added to the problem, burning dams and water supply pipes. “One day you turn on the tap and suddenly no water comes out. Since then we have been dug in with a supply of water bottles in case it happens again,” says Celia Gradín of the A Roca neighborhood.

After studying overseas Gradín returned to her native hamlet just before the October fires. She only just managed to save her house, and in a bid to restore forest resources set up an association that aims to regenerate the area, and which is now also trying to stop the diversion of the Verdugo River. “We are not going to allow something which strips us of resources without any sort of environmental study,” she says.

We are not going to allow something that strips us of resources without any sort of environmental study Celia Gradín, Ponte Caldelas resident

“There are hundreds of people living in terrible, sad conditions, especially in parishes like Silvoso [Pontevedra province], where the birth rate is very high and where lots of children are surviving with the aid of the tanks the town hall brings in,” says Rafael Berbés from the Ínsua group, which identifies new water sources.

Although the current drought in Galicia is unusual, a period of extremely low rainfall in the fall of 2007 also saw regional authorities calling for more efficient water use. A decade later, the Miño-Sil hydrography confederation admitted that infrastructure was in such poor state that 30% of water was being lost during the supply process.

English version by George Mills.

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