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Drought crisis

Drought leads to flow of projects to increase Malaga's water resources

Works already finished or imminent include bringing wells back into service, new pumping stations, treated wastewater, desalination plants and pipeline connections

Friday, 1 March 2024, 13:43

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The ground is cracking in the dry reservoirs and warnings have long since been sounded. This is the year in which the least rain has topped up the reservoirs since records began. The measure of the drought can be taken from multiple angles. It is already serious throughout the province, both in areas that are fed by reservoirs and those with other, now depleted, resources. A maximum of 160 litres per person per day - that's the limit. Reserves are at 16 per cent and have long since fallen below 100 cubic hectometres. But every crisis is an opportunity: the water shortage has led to a flow of 35 projects in just five years, most of them promoted by the ministry of agriculture at the Andalusian regional government.

The map below shows the location of all the projects and how far they have progressed: initial study - red; planning stage - orange; under construction - yellow; imminent - blue; and already operative - green. It also shows the capacity of each project:

There has never been such an amount of work in a province that has seen hardly any since 2006, when the last major infrastructure of note was commissioned: the desalination plant at El Atabal in Malaga, which allows the saline water of the Guadalhorce reservoir, contaminated by the Meliones spring, to produce high quality water. The plant is one of the works completed in the last five years: its treatment capacity has increased by 10 per cent. And that, for example, will now help to process salinised resources from the wells of the lower Guadalhorce.

El Atabal desalination plant for brackish water has been extended by 10%.
El Atabal desalination plant for brackish water has been extended by 10%. Migue Fernández

Constant flow of paperwork

Four drought decrees, official gazettes, newspaper archives and the Plus Sequía plan provide an objective measure of how the department led by Carmen Crespo has got its act together. The flow of projects is constant. SUR has compiled 36 (there could be more), although one of them has not yet been processed as such: the Cerro Blanco dam. This project, which will make use of the 25 cubic hectometres a year that the river Grande brings to the Guadalhorce when it joins it near Cártama, is part of the Junta's planning, but in the long term.

The Gibralmedina reservoir, whose project is being finalised to dam the Guadiaro river and provide 15 cubic hectometres a year to the Costa del Sol from somewhere between Cadiz and Malaga, is also a distant prospect.

The rest of the initiatives compiled for this report are very much alive. More than a week ago, the large pipeline to carry reclaimed wastewater from the Peñón del Cuervo treatment plant to the Axarquía was inaugurated. Water from the city to irrigate the countryside.

Pipes to take regenerated wastewater from Peñón del Cuervo to the Axarquía.
Pipes to take regenerated wastewater from Peñón del Cuervo to the Axarquía. Ñito Salas

Ministers gave the green light last month to the works to expand the Marbella desalination plant to 20 cubic hectometres per year. The aim is to have it ready by autumn.

The figures involved in these plans are dizzying: 132.9 cubic hectometres extra of drinking water and 40.4 cubic hectometres added of reclaimed water for agriculture and golf and garden irrigation, bringing the province's total to 101 in the short term.

The drought has made a virtue out of necessity and now 42% of Andalusian public works are going in this direction, according to data from the regional agriculture ministry, which states that the investment mobilised in the province is around 400 million euros since 2019.

The five projects with the greatest capacity

In cubic hectometres

Extension ETAP Verde

Still at the planning stage, this treatment plant in Marbella will generate 135 hm3 a year.

Renovation of water supply mains pipeline on the Costa del Sol

This planned work, from Manilva to Torremolinos, will provide 100 hm3 a year.

Gibralmedina reservoir

Located in San Pablo de Buceite (Jimena de la Frontera, Cadiz) and still at the planning stage, this will store between 45 and 100 hm3.

Renovaton ETAP Pilones

At the planning stage and located in Campanillas, it will generate 63 hm3 a year.

Lower Guadalhorce wells and connections

The project, near the airport, is the only one of the five that will be in operation imminently. It will provide 25 hm3 a year.

AUX STEP FOR JS

Thirsty Axarquía

The other major project in the province is located in a district most in need of water: the Axarquía. The desalination plant in Vélez will be built on a plot of land next to the water treatment plant, very close to El Ingenio shopping centre. The money is there, because central government has committed 100 million euros. And the land is available because the Junta and Vélez town hall have reserved it for expropriation. But the national and regional ministries clash over who should be in charge of drawing up the construction project (something that was not included in the signed agreement but which, on paper, as it is a work of general state interest, is Madrid's responsibility). In any case, the minister for the sector, Teresa Ribera, has said that the plant will not be ready before the end of 2027 or 2028.

Desalination is also part of the plans. Small plants will bring old wells with low recharge and high conductivity (sodium) up to standard. These portable installations will operate in Guadalmansa, Fuengirola and El Trapiche. And the aforementioned Atabal will treat flows from the lower Guadalhorce, in addition to those already purified and whose recharge is increasing at Fahala and Aljaima.

Another driving force of the water policies is backed by the most overwhelming logic: to take water from one place to another according to needs. Thanks, for example, to La Rosaleda pumping station, Malaga city sends just under 300 litres per second to the Axarquía. When, in addition, the Rojas (Churriana) pumping facilities come into operation, there will be water between the Campo de Gibraltar and Axarquía in both directions, including Guadalhorce. Another thing is the need for a complete renovation of the main pipeline on the Costa del Sol, with 100 kilometres between Manilva and Torremolinos.

The Gibralmedina reservoir project is based on this idea of the 'water highway', which currently has improved water supply connections to Alhaurín de la Torre and a project is being drafted to bring some five cubic hectometres a year from the Iznájar reservoir in Cordoba to Antequera and the north-eastern district of the province.

Collaboration between different authorities has favoured this dense network of projects. And it is here where the efforts of the main public companies - Acosol, Emasa and Axaragua - multiply in conjunction with town councils.

Among them all, the attitude of Estepona, which decided to embark on its own desalination project in three phases in the municipality, is particularly striking. First, it wants to have the Castor wells operational by this summer, and, in parallel, it is already studying a portable desalination plant next to the mouth of the Castor river, which it wants to start up in two phases and whose energy supply is self-sufficient. Sea and sun, an unbeatable combination.

Short, mid and long term

"The really difficult thing at the moment is that we have to work on very short-term, medium-term and long-term actions," sources from the regional ministry of agriculture told this newspaper, adding that the first two drought decrees are practically 100 per cent implemented, the third is well advanced and the fourth is also making progress.

Because if we are talking about the very short term, the connections and floating pumps are ready to take advantage of the 'dead reservoir' area of La Viñuela and could soon be ready in La Concepción.

Of the 36 initiatives referred to here, 11 have been completed; 10 are under construction or are imminent; 12 are in the planning stage and the other three are in the preliminary studies phase. All this is possible by investing the extra fee the Junta collects for infrastructure through water bills.

What nobody wants to end up with is having to bring water by boat. Just in case, negotiations are being finalised to bring it from the desalination plant in Escombreras, Cartagena. The unloading will take place at the Port of Malaga. Technicians have already inspected the large pipeline that was built at the mouth of the Guadalmedina for the drought of 1995.

Methodology:

Some of the locations are merely a guide, as they either cover a large area (pipelines) or their exact locations are still unspecified.

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