Water connects everything, Álora

By Sarah Boone, B.A. student.

Insight from Álora, Spain.

Looking at a map of the Guadalhorce watershed, I traced the blue line of the river through the towns dotted along the valley. The water in this valley provides life and livelihood to this region of Southern Spain, serving as a source of irrigation for agriculture and drinking water for many small communities and the large, coastal city of Málaga. The river has served these purposes since the time of the Romans, when the region of Andalucía was developed as a breadbasket for the growing empire. The Moorish civilization continued to develop the water infrastructure by building elaborate canals, some of which are still in use today. These systems have lasted for centuries, but today as aridity increases in Southern Spain, the traditional allocations of water and the rural culture it supports are under pressure to change.

Water has a subtle but constant presence in the political conversations of Spain. Over my two months abroad, almost every newspaper that I picked up had an article about water. El País, a major national news source, chronicled drought in the interior, the increasing salinization of wells and the politics of water allocation. Though the discussions rarely made front-page headlines, the controversies over water governance are growing as Spain looks toward a future of scarcity. Water connects everything from the lemon groves of the Guadalhorce to the global politics of the Spanish debt crisis, and climate change and an unforgiving global economy is forcing the Spanish government to grapple with setting some new priorities.

When it comes to lawmaking, the Spanish statute has codified a hierarchy for national water allocation. Officially, drinking water is prime, followed by irrigation, industry and ecology. This simple principle, though touted as a logical precept, gives little consideration to the historical and cultural value of water. Debates emerging over water governance are not simply economic concerns, but rather a national conversation about the values of maintaining rural and agrarian traditions in the face of growing cities and urban water requirements.

In the Guadalhorce watershed, the Junta de Andalucía (the state-level government) is charged with creating regional water distribution plans that reflect this hierarchy. Some years, there is plenty of water, yet the farmers and low level officials all know that those years are becoming fewer and farther between. The question for governance then becomes a delicate one. When there simply is not enough water to fulfill all of the needs, which one’s are really the most important? Whose needs should be served first?

According to the national hierarchy, the growing urban demand for drinking water in Málaga takes priority, decreasing the amount available for the small towns and farms in the interior. A region already suffering from the economic crisis, a decrease in water allocation (and subsequent harvest and profits) would make many families in this region hard-pressed to remain in the country. Such an allocation might drive rural communities to abandon their lifestyles and head for the growing metropolises, leaving their centuries of customary life behind them. The traditional knowledge of the region might fade and the typical orchards of lemons, oranges and olives would gradually disappear. The people of the Guadalhorce have already started to migrate into the urban sprawl surrounding Málaga or other larger cities and it is quite possible that the people in this region would slowly lose their connection with this land.

Many in the Guadalhorce are painfully aware that this social and cultural change is already beginning. Over my time in Álora, a small citrus farming community, the contest between drinking water and agriculture was clearly charged by the threat of loosing access to a traditional lifestyle. Almost as an act of passive resistance, many small irrigators have refused water-saving irrigation technology and continue to use the traditional, method of flood-irrigation in an effort to preserve their culture. At the same time, in all of my conversations with irrigators and water managers I expected to hear some remark about the wasteful use of water in Málaga. Large hotels and the swells of three-showers-per-day tourists in the summertime were the most common complaint, but I could tell that the real concern for these farmers was simply that the state was starting to give up on them. The priorities have shifted to the city and the cultural benefits of small town life are being quietly forgotten..

In terms of sustainability, the problem that Spain faces is really a challenge of choosing what to sustain. Should the government maintain support of these agriculturalists in an effort to maintain a cultural heritage? In a water-scarce world where you can’t have it all, it is important that all governments begin to consider how to value culture and tradition in water resource use.

On the 19th of July, the headline of the New York Times read: “Severe Drought Expected to Worsen Across the Nation.” I put down the paper, thinking about the climatic realities that connect us all… and about their widespread consequences. Higher food prices and increasing rural poverty, forced migrations, economic shocks and cultural change. Water connects everything and the USA will grapple with many of the same challenges that Spain faces in the coming years.  Our country and much of the world will have to adapt to a new resource reality, being mindful of the cultural, social and economic implications of changing water governance. Although I do not pretend to have any answers about what should be sustained or how this might be achieved, I do know that when it comes to water we must consider culture and identity very strongly in any change in policy.


Sarah Boone is a senior in the Peace, Security and Diplomacy track of the Jackson School of International Studies and is minoring in Environmental Studies. She is also writing an honors thesis on water scarcity and conflict resolution in the Middle East. She is the current Editor-in-Chief of the Jackson School Journal.

Sarah was in Spain at the UW León Center.  She was enrolled in a program focused on water and especially on the operation of public policy, law, and customary practice as forces that shape how water is used and understood. For the first few weeks of the program, students reviewed case-study literature on water governance from around the world and studied Spanish intensively. Following this, the class conducted fieldwork in the Guadalhorce Valley which was largely comprised of interviews with farmers and low level officials. The research was conducted in collaboration with a team from Wageningen University that specializes in water resources in this region. The UW study abroad program was lead by Professor Gregory Hicks (UW School of Law) and Katherine R. Kroeger (Office of Global Affairs).