Rain in Spain falls mainly on the wane Farm­ers come a crop­per in drought

The Washington Times Daily - - World - BY DANIEL WOOLLS

FROBRES, SPAIN er­nando Luna, a burly Span­ish farmer, yanks a bar­ley sprout from a field as dry as pow­der. He ex­am­ines its roots, which are mostly dead, then tosses the stunted shoot away in dis­gust. ”Worth­less! This is worth­less!” Mr. Luna shouts. Spain is fac­ing its dri­est win­ter in more than 70 years, and bailed-out Por­tu­gal next door is in sim­i­lar straits. Thou­sands of jobs and many mil­lions in agri­cul­tural out­put are in jeop­ardy.

Both na­tions are des­per­ately short of so much: tax rev­enues, bank credit, jobs, hope for the fu­ture. Now, it won’t even rain. The land­scape in north­ern Spain is a pal­ette in shades of ugly. Pale brown fields with­out crops or pas­ture stretch off into the dis­tance. A pond for wa­ter­ing sheep has shriv­eled into a dust bowl.

An ir­ri­ga­tion canal down the road holds only stag­nant water, murky from so much sed­i­ment and so lit­tle flow.

Mr. Luna waves this way and that, dis­traught over fields he says are doomed to yield zero harvest. He has given up his win­ter crop for lost.

“Imag­ine, the color of vine­gar! They should be green, green, green,” he says of the bar­ley fields that lack shoots.

Stalks should be reach­ing half­way up the shin at this point.

Spain got less than 30 per­cent of its nor­mal pre­cip­i­ta­tion from De­cem­ber through Fe­bru­ary.

There is a slim win­dow of 10 days or so for it to rain and help farm­ers like Mr. Luna sal­vage at least part of their win­ter crops of wheat, bar­ley and oats.

Lean times ahead

Not all regions are as bad off as Huesca, a north­east­ern prov­ince where the Pyre­nees lie and where Mr. Luna is pres­i­dent of a chap­ter of the ASAJA farm­ers as­so­ci­a­tion.

But the March weather fore­cast is not good for farm­ers — just more blue skies, says Fer­min El­izaga of the na­tional weather ser­vice.

“Out in the coun­try­side, the sit­u­a­tion is prob­a­bly go­ing to get worse,” he says.

A key con­cern is how full Spain’s reser­voirs will be for wa­ter­ing the lu­cra­tive fruit and vegetable crops that are the pride and joy of the coun­try’s $52 bil­lion agri­cul­ture and live­stock in­dus­try.

Na­tion­wide, reser­voirs are at an av­er­age 62 per­cent of ca­pac­ity — not that bad — but in Huesca, they are just 20 per­cent.

That means farm­ers get only 20 per­cent of the water they are nor­mally al­lot­ted for ir­ri­ga­tion and will have to leave much of their land idle.

ASAJA es­ti­mates this will cost Huesca prov­ince about $1.7 bil­lion in lost rev­enue from dras­ti­cally smaller har­vests of peaches, cher­ries, al­monds and grapes.

In a good year, 6,000 peo­ple work in the Huesca harvest and an ad­di­tional 2,000 in can­ning, pack­ag­ing and re­lated ser­vices.

It could be a lean year for them, as it will be for much of Spain, with its nearly 23 per­cent job­less rate — the high­est in the 17-na­tion euro­zone — and an econ­omy ex­pected to slip into its sec­ond re­ces­sion in three years.

In Gali­cia, Spain’s lushly green north­west­ern corner, where it usu­ally rains all the time, pas­tures have no grass this year.

Farm­ers there and else­where are be­ing forced to ship in fod­der for sheep and cat­tle at a cost of $2.6 mil­lion a day, ac­cord­ing to ASAJA na­tional spokesman Gre­go­rio Juarez. “They’re all burned up,” says Mr. Juarez. Be­ing so used to plen­ti­ful rain, Gali­cia and other parts of north­ern Spain have fewer reser­voirs, so they are less pre­pared than the of­ten blaz­ingly hot south, where places like An­dalu­sia and Ex­tremadura on the bor­der with Por­tu­gal catch ev­ery drop of pre­cious rain.

In Huesca, one reser­voir built in the 1950s is now so low you can see the ru­ins of a sub­merged vil­lage, Me­di­ano. At the best of times, the tip of its 16th-cen­tury church bell­tower peeks out of the water and boaters row up and touch it.

These days, the water is so low you could walk into the church it­self if the front door were not sealed up.

Prob­lems in Por­tu­gal

In Por­tu­gal, Joao Di­nis, a spokesman for Por­tu­gal’s Na­tional Farms Con­fed­er­a­tion, says the drought has added to hard­ships caused by the coun­try’s acute fi­nan­cial cri­sis, which forced it to ask for a $102 bil­lion bailout last year, mak­ing credit scarce.

Farm­ers are en­dur­ing “a very, very dif­fi­cult” pe­riod, with ce­real crops badly hit and graz­ing land in short sup­ply, he says.

“It’s the worst sit­u­a­tion in liv­ing mem­ory,” Mr. Di­nis says.

He says Por­tuguese farm­ers need emer­gency aid of $33 mil­lion. The Farm Min­istry is cal­cu­lat­ing the dam­ages and ne­go­ti­at­ing ex­cep­tional grants for farm­ers with the Euro­pean Union.

In Ro­bres, a speck of a vil­lage in Huesca, bar­ley farmer Jose Manuel Al­lue is tak­ing the rare step of wa­ter­ing his crop, grains like wheat and bar­ley that are nor­mally fed by rain alone.

And he is blow­ing his en­tire ir­ri­ga­tion quota in just two days, us­ing 6-foot-high sprin­klers to soak a piece of land as big as 40 foot­ball fields.

The pole­like de­vices shower water with a pleas­ant, rhyth­mic spritz­ing sound.

“Af­ter that is gone, it is just a mat­ter of look­ing to the sky and hop­ing,” Mr. Al­lue says, tak­ing long drags on a strong, thick Span­ish cig­a­rette as the earthy smell of a pig farm wafts by.

Sec­onds later, some­thing does ap­pear in the sky, but it’s not clouds: three water-dump­ing fire planes re­turn­ing from a mis­sion fur­ther north.

For­est fires — a sta­ple of Span­ish sum­mers — have bro­ken out in re­cent weeks be­cause of the dry con­di­tions, aw­fully early in the year for such blazes. Ditto for Por­tu­gal.

Mr. Al­lue checks the weather fore­cast on the In­ter­net or TV first thing each morn­ing and hears talk of lit­tle else at the town tav­ern, but he has a herd of 1,100 pigs to tide him over if his bar­ley crop proves worth­less.

Mr. Juarez, of ASAJA’S Madrid of­fice, says a drought is the last thing Spain needs now on top of its eco­nomic dis­tress.

He uses a Span­ish adage that, when a stray dog is ema­ci­ated and mangy, it prob­a­bly has other prob­lems, too. “For a skinny dog, it’s all fleas,” he says.

Trans­la­tion: When it rains, it pours.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

Vis­i­tors walk past the re­mains of a 16th-cen­tury church and an an­cient vil­lage, in­clud­ing a tree (top), or­di­nar­ily sub­merged by the wa­ters of a reser­voir in Huesca, Spain, on Tues­day. The reser­voir, built in the 1950s, sub­merg­ing a vil­lage called Me­di­ano, is so low on water ow­ing to the dri­est win­ter in more than 70 years.

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