Article | 06 Avr, 2022

The Fight for Water: Local Communities Versus Big Government and Big Business in Western Andalusia, Spain

CEESP News: Nicholas Winer, Ecologistas en Acción, Grupo Sierra de Huelva and CEESP member.

With growing demands for water in southern Spain, a new project is being implemented to increase water supply in a mountainous corner of western Andalusia. This plan, however, ignores the needs of the local population and threatens the unique flora and fauna of the region. Ecologistas en Acción, grupo Sierra de Huelva, the local branch of a national organisation that defends social and environmental interests, is providing support to the local community as they seek ways to protect their traditional water sources.

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Photo: Nicholas Winer, Ecologistas en Acción

As climate change brings drought more sharply into focus in western Andalusia in southern Spain, so do the growing demands for water. These demands – coming from the domestic, tourism and agriculture sectors – represent a real environmental challenge in the face of limited supplies. The evident lack of a policy based set of solutions at a national and regional level is exemplified by the giant project in the province of Huelva to provide the villages of the Sierra de Aracena in the Parque Natural Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche with equitable access to water through a giant ring main. This park is a UNESCO bio-sphere reserve and member of Natura 2000. The project is about to be implemented using a major dam that supplies Seville, which is currently empty and two wells drilled close to traditional water sources that have fed small scale agriculture for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. This is taking place in an environment in which Park regulations are potentially being loosened under a new management plan that is being hotly debated and in which irrigated agriculture is expanding along with the market for second homes as rural tourism continues its inexorable march into the mountains.

The local population, in an area rich in tradition, is dismayed at the possible impact of such a project, particularly as the well about to be linked to the system has no approval from either the Park or the Water Authority. An interplay of political interests is clearly running roughshod over the local environment. 

Towards the end of March of the Regional Government (Junta de Andalucía) began the administrative phase of the expropriation of land from smallholders to implement a project whose permissions are not complete and whose impacts will be especially negative on the interplay of local traditions and the fauna and flora that has made the Sierra de Aracena an icon of sustainable agroforestry and been a driver behind its conservation status. 

Nicholas Winer, Ecologistas en AcciónPhoto: Nicholas Winer, Ecologistas en Acción

The Sierra de Huelva branch of Ecologists in Action (Ecologistas en Acción, grupo Sierra de Huelva), along with numerous local organisations, called on local residents to attend the demonstration held on March 19 in the local administrative centre of Aracena. The purpose of the demonstration was to defend the banks, wetlands, traditional orchards and mountain landscapes and to protest against the exploitation of the aquifer of the Molino del Bombo in order to ensure the future sustainability of the water course and valley known as the Fuente del Rey

In addition, Ecologists in Action have denounced before the Guadalquivir’s Water Management Board the Regional Government's plan to extract water from a well that is illegally close to a water course and which still hasn't received either their permission or the Park Authority´s permission for any water extraction.

 The Water Main project, promoted by the Junta de Andalucía, as currently proposed, will endanger the survival of a traditional horticultural system that has been producing fruit and vegetables since time immemorial. It is a functioning landscape that provides and can continue to provide meaningful food security and important economic benefits for many families and is one that has created a sense of identity and belonging such that it forms an integral part of the landscape and cultural heritage of the Sierra de Aracena. The aquifers, from which the springs and streams emerge to support the rich ecosystem protected within the Natural Park of the Sierra de Aracena and Picos de Aroche, integrated into the Natura 2000 Network and UNESCO bio-sphere network and which is also a Special Protected Area for Birds, cannot be touched without putting this web of conservation and traditional land use at risk. 

Ecologists in Action have demanded that the Junta de Andalucía formulates a better measured, planned, and tested project based on the extraction of water from the Aracena reservoir, as a lesser evil, instead of a short-sighted solution with serious environmental consequences. 

Ecologists in Action warn that, despite the policies set by the European Union and the United Nations to combat climate change and its consequences, more and more projects contrary to these criteria are being approved in this mountainous terrain such as:

- A number of agro-industrial projects replacing rainfed and traditional irrigation systems with intensive high input systems owned by large corporations.

- Poorly planned urban growth of second and third residences driving increased resource use.

- The expanding installation of large Iberian pork industries that come to the area to try to take advantage of the world famous Jamón de Jabugo brand.

- The potential for a rapid increase in tourism activities that consume large amounts of water, such as golf courses, should there be any relaxation of the current Park regulations via a new management plan.

There is an urgent and unavoidable need to open a public, participatory debate capable of giving a voice to all the parties involved and affected, to seek a consensus based not only on technical knowledge, but also one rooted in a historical and territorial understanding.