Sahara crosses into Portugal and Spain

Rivers run low, crops wither, livestock starve to death and wildfires rage on the Iberian peninsula in the grip of a devastating drought that makes it look like the Sahara is reaching out across the Mediterranean.

The peninsula’s fiercest drought in 60 years is seen as a further sign of desertification in a region where global warming is aggravating the effects of soil erosion.

Flames have devoured more than 160 000ha of forest and bush in Spain and Portugal this year. The summer’s wildfires have killed 20 people and injured dozens, destroyed homes and forced the evacuation of entire villages.

The area ravaged by fires in Spain has increased from an average of less than 60 000ha annually in the early 1970s to more than 400 000ha in 1978, 1985, 1989 and 1994, according to figures quoted by wildfire expert Humberto da Cruz.

In Portugal, the worst wildfires on record destroyed 423 000ha or 8% of forested surface in 2003.

”In a few years’ time, Portugal could turn into a rocky desert,” biologist Jorge Paiva said.

Nearly all the fires are caused by human carelessness or arson, but they are exacerbated by droughts such as the one this summer, which has made parts of the Iberian peninsula look like parched areas in Africa, with water reservoirs drying up under the blazing sun.

The drought has devastated agriculture, slashing the sector’s financial projections by 35% in Portugal, while in Spain, the losses are estimated at â,¬1,6-billion.

Trucks have supplied water to dozens of villages where taps went dry, and animals are suffering such distress that wild boars venture to drink from swimming pools in the Guadarrama mountains near Madrid.

Experts say the drought could signal a five-year cycle of dry spells in an apparent sign that global warming is accelerating desertification on the Iberian peninsula.

Signs of climate change are being observed all over southern Europe, such as rising temperatures, flowers and fruit maturing earlier, wildfires and heat deaths.

Average rainfall has gone down by more than 10% over the past 50 years in five-sixths of Spanish territory, according to researcher Francisco Ayala.

The effects of global warming are intensified by soil erosion, which has continued for millennia under the pressure of agriculture, pasture, wildfires, urban sprawl and tourism.

Sixty-seven percent of Spanish territory is undergoing desertification, with 11% ”affected to a very high degree”, according to 2003 government figures.

The process is most acute in the south and on the coast, but it can be observed all the way to the north.

”This soil has always been very fertile, but since some years it dries up quicker, needs to be irrigated and fertilised more frequently, and the plants grow without strength,” said Emilio, a 35-year-old farmer living near the north-western city of Orense.

Many farmers like Emilio end up moving to cities. In Portugal as well, rural depopulation heightens the risk of desertification, which presents a moderate threat to an estimated 60% of the territory.

The consequences of a warmer climate could be far-reaching for the Iberian peninsula. Last summer, doctors in Puerto Sagunto near Valencia treated patients suffering from muscular pains and nausea caused by a tropical mosquito of African origin.

Diseases such as malaria could also cross over from Africa, as could locust swarms. Experts also warn against intensifying floods, caused by less frequent but heavier rainfall, and environmental disasters in areas such as the delta of the river Ebro, rich in bird and fish species.

Spain and Portugal cannot tackle such threats alone, and for the time being, they are focusing on immediate measures to hold back the desert.

Fire prevention should start in the winter by removing inflammable stubble and by establishing firebreaks, things absentee forest owners do not usually bother with, Portuguese agronomist Pedro Cortes advised.

Spain has announced new measures such as a prohibition against lighting fires in forests in the summer, but experts complain that the Spanish and Portuguese governments are still not taking firefighting and prevention seriously enough.

Water management is another subject of constant controversy on the Iberian peninsula, where the drought sparked disputes concerning the sharing of cross-border river water between Lisbon and Madrid.

Spain’s water scarcity is aggravated by an antiquated supply network, inefficient irrigation by big-business agriculture, the annual presence of 50-million tourists and a construction boom on the coast where more than 300 000 homes were built last year, often with water-consuming golf courses and illegal wells.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s government scrapped the previous government’s plan to divert water from the Ebro to the south and is considering alternatives such as desalination plants and water recycling.

The government is, however, reluctant to raise the cheap price of water, regarded as the main reason why Spanish households waste so much of it. — Sapa-DPA

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