The parched reservoir on Sunday 17 July / Nito salas

La Viñuela reservoir crisis leaves 1,000 hectares of land unirrigated

With more than two months of summer still to go the outlook is looking bleak for growers as the Junta acts in order to guarantee the drinking water supply in the area

Eugenio Cabezas

The situation in the Axarquía’s countryside is already at breaking point and with more than two months of summer still to go the outlook is looking bleak for growers. The drastically low level of water in La Viñuela reservoir, which supplies 14 towns and villages and irrigates some 6,200 hectares of crops, has forced the Junta de Andalucía to reduce the irrigation allocation to the lowest in history; 1,500 cubic metres per hectare, until 30 September, in order to guarantee the drinking water supply in the area.

The regional administration is asking for "commitment and cooperation" from farmers and the general public in the face of an uncertain autumn, and insists that the "necessary" works are already being carried out to alleviate the water deficit. However, due to the drought and delays projects that will offer alternative resources, SUR has learned that around one thousand hectares of crops, mainly mangoes and avocados, have already run out of water for irrigation, having exhausted their quota for the water year.

Although the figure is not very high, as it represents just 16 per cent of the cultivated area under the Guaro Plan, it could increase in the coming weeks, as many others consumed more than 80 per cent of their allotted supply until 30 September, when the water year ends. However, the real catastrophe for some 3,500 hectares could come on 1 October, when, if is no significant rainfall before then, the Junta will be forced to completely cut off the irrigation allocation to guarantee supply to the population in the following months.

Exceptional measures

In March the Andalusian government along with other authorities approved "a series of exceptional measures for the La Viñuela system”, including water saving plans with the objective of achieving at least a 20 per cent reduction in urban supply, limiting the allocation to 200 litres per inhabitant per day.

A series of emergency works totalling more than 38.3 million euros are being carried out in the area. "Some of these actions have already been carried out or are in progress, others are in the process of being approved.

The communities that have already run out of water for irrigation are mainly located in Vélez-Málaga and Torrox, although there are also some in other villages like La Viñuela. Antonio Gil is the president of the Arroyo Salinas growers’ group in Vélez-Málaga, with 140 hectares of mangoes and avocados. "We have been without water since 15 June, only those who have tanks or reservoirs in which they have stored water are irrigating, but the minimum," says this grower.

"We are having a very bad time, there are some 70 hectares of avocado trees that are being lost, we have no possibility of using the regenerated water from the Vélez treatment plant, because there are only pipes for the right bank, on the left bank we depend exclusively on the reservoir", Gil points out. He describes the situation of the subtropical sector as "in absolute ruin". "The existing wells are becoming saline, which dries out the avocado trees," he adds.

Desperate situation

The president of this community regrets that they have to face very high investments in order to be able to use regenerated water. "We have to pay up to 5,000 euros per hectare and then build a pipeline of up to five kilometres, we are desperate,” he adds.

Also in Torrox, the Manzano II growers’ association, which totals 36 hectares, is about to have its supply from the reservoir cut off, "with 1,500 cubic metres per hectare it is impossible to grow avocados", laments José Perucho, the association’s president. "We have invested 40,000 euros in the project to connect us to the treatment plant, but they still won't give us permission to use the regenerated water", he complains.

Perucho is only able to irrigate his 1,500 Hass avocado trees on three hectares one day a week. "Fortunately I have a well and I can water them from there, but we need the water from the water treatment plant, there are farms that have a load of fruit and they are dying," he says. "If they cut us off and give us no alternative, the farms will be lost in August," he adds.

The vice-president of the Spanish Tropical Association (Trops), Domingo Medina, has complained that the situation in the Axarquia countryside is "dramatic, agonising, a catastrophe”. He went on to say, "We need alternative resources, that the wells of the River Chíllar start once and for all to transfer water for human consumption and that the delivery from Malaga capital is increased".

Medina acknowledges that if there is no significant rainfall in September, which is very unlikely, "we know that on 1 October the Junta is going to cut off water for irrigation to all the communities that depend on the reservoir".

Water collpase warnings

The Junta Central de Usuarios del Sur del Guaro has been able to use reclaimed water from the Vélez-Málaga treatment plant to irrigate some 2,700 hectares located on the right bank of the Velez river since last November. "We will already be at more than 80 per cent of the allocation, so we need to increase the pumping from the treatment plant, from 8,000 cubic metres a day to 12,000 and see if we are able to reach 18,000, once the expansion of the works are completed," says the president of this union of communities, José Campos.

Environmentalist group Gabinete de Estudios de la Naturaleza de la Axarquía (GENA) - Ecologists in Action has been warning for more than five years of the risk of "water collapse" due to the "uncontrolled" increase in the area of subtropical crops in the Axarquia, which is also increasing the risk of desertification in the the Axarquía.

La Viñuela reservoir on Sunday 17 July / Ñ. salas