A view of La Viñuela reservoir - the largest in Malaga province - showing how empty it is. / ÑITO SALAS

Lack of infrastructure works adds to Costa drought woes

The province still hasn't undertaken the necessary projects to alleviate the effects of the driest spell in 80 years

IGNACIO LILLO MALAGA.

The province is facing its worst drought since records began in 1942, says Aemet's Meteorological Centre in Malaga.

In Spain, the hydrological (or water) year begins on 1 October of one year and ends on 30 September of the next year, according to the Ministry of Ecological Transition. This period is used to measure wet cycles which are key for planning and managing increasingly scarce resources.

From 1 October 2021 to 31 January 2022, just 49.8mm of rain have been recorded. The average for the same period from 1980 to 2010 is 344mm. This means that the amount of rain that has fallen has been only 14.5 per cent of the average and is the worst figure in 80 years.

The second worst start to the hydrological year was 2013 to 2014, with 84.3mm. It was followed by 1994 to 1995, which was one of the worst droughts in memory. Other years of notable drought include 1985 to 1986 and 1966 to 1967.

"Rainfall is well below average levels," said Jesús Riesco, who was recently appointed director of Aemet in Malaga after the retirement of José María Sánchez-Laulhé. February, which is a traditionally wet month, is not expected to bring much rain this year because of a prevailing anticyclone, he added.

"We are in a period of below-normal rainfall but it is still within the natural variability of the Mediterranean climate," Riesco said, noting that 2019 to 2020 was well below average while the hydrological year before that was wetter and 2010 to 2011 was "extraordinarily wet".

There is still hope for March. "An episode may appear that recovers part of the deficit: we still cannot anticipate what will happen but with a couple of rainy episodes in the spring it could be resolved," added Riesco.

Infrastructure problems

The problem is not just a lack of rainfall, but also infrastructure to reduce dependence on the weather. The present situation, with the province facing the prospect of its worst hydrological year for 80 years, has served to highlight these shortcomings.

Although the Junta de Andalucía has activated a number of emergency works to guarantee supplies at present, it is clear that Malaga lacks major projects to deal with the problem in the long term and this is not exactly new: most of them have been lying around in drawers for decades.

These can be structured in three blocks: the search for new water resources; the optimisation and improvement of existing infrastructure; and the use of recycled water to reduce the amount of water taken from the reservoirs.

In terms of increasing reserves, one project which was first proposed in 2014 is to increase the capacity of La Concepción reservoir in Marbella. It is so small (with a capacity of 60 cubic hectometres) that water has to be released from it into the sea nearly every year when it rains heavily. The idea is to build a new containing wall lower down than the existing one, which would enable three times as much water to be stored.

Along the same line, in 2008 a contract was awarded for the construction of a desalination plant between Mijas and Fuengirola, which could produce about 20Hm3 of drinking water a year, enough for a population of around 500,000. However, there was a setback because the government then changed its mind, on the grounds of a lack of electrical power and its location in an area of urban expansion, but it also had doubts about the model for selling the water the plant would produce, because it would be very expensive.

Another proposal is for the Costa del Sol to be able to take water from the new Gibralmedina reservoir in Cadiz province which will supply the Campo de Gibraltar region.

The last major project which has barely progressed is a pipeline to take water from the Iznájar reservoir in Cordoba to the Antequera and Nororma district in the north of the province. The Junta has committed 50 million euros for this and put the contract to draw up the plans for the pipe network out to tender, but it depends on the government authorising the transfer of 4.89Hm3 a year which would benefit nearly a dozen municipalities, many of which currently depend on water being brought in by tankers in the summer.

Leaks and breaks

It would also help if work was carried out to prevent leaks and breaks in pipelines, to ensure that no water is lost. The worst example here is the major pipeline which runs for 100 kilometres along the Costa del Sol, from Manilva to Torremolinos. After being in use for half a century there are dozens of problems every year. There have been plans to replace it for some time, but its condition is now so poor that this has become urgent.

Two projects from Acosol water company have also been delayed. One is the modernisation of the water treatment plant at Río Verde (Marbella), which was built in 1972 and is not functioning well, and the other is to increase the capacity of the Marbella desalination plant, which was designed to produce 20 Hm3 a year but is only producing 12.

What will come to fruition in the next few months is the desalination plant at El Atabal (Malaga), which uses water from the Guadalhorce reservoirs to supply the city and will be a salvation for La Axarquía. This project was authorised by the government as an emergency measure on 1 February, and should be completed by the autumn.

Recycling water

Nearly all the water from sewage plants in Malaga province ends up in the sea instead of being used to irrigate crops, golf courses, parks and gardens, even though the reservoirs are almost empty.

It is an easy equation: the more recycled water that can be used for irrigation, the less pressure will be placed on the reservoirs.

On the western Costa del Sol, recycled water has been used for golf courses for 30 years, but there are now plans to extend this to other green areas and for street cleaning.

The eastern side of the province, which is suffering even more from the lack of rain, will soon benefit from emergency works to some sewage plants which will enable more recycled water to be used for these purposes.