Sep 12, 2023 5 min read

Impact of Almería’s agri-food production on its water

Impact of Almería’s agri-food production on its water
A view from above shows an irrigation pond turned turquoise with bleach, used to prevent algae from clogging the greenhouse irrigation system. Photo: Neal Haddaway

The southern Spanish province of Almería unveils a paradoxical tale of prosperity and peril. Producing fruits and vegetables in greenhouses, most of it for export, Almería has a flourishing economy. But it comes at the cost of losing and polluting its limited water resources, writes Neal Haddaway.

Almería, the southern Spanish province, nestles against the azure waters of the Mediterranean sea. Despite having over 200 km of coastline, it is the driest region of continental Europe, with just 200 mm of annual rainfall

Yet the region is often referred to as the ‘orchard of Europe’ now, due to the fruits and vegetables grown here and exported. It is agriculture that took Almería from famine and poverty to one of the richest regions in Spain. The transformation has revolved around controlling a scarce commodity in this arid landscape – water.

This control has come in the form of more than 320 square km of plastic-covered greenhouses that have allowed the near-desert to be turned into a highly productive agricultural region.

But this high productivity is resulting in a suite of problems, and an often-overlooked shadow trade in water.

Export of virtual water

Almería’s natural ecosystem has been drastically altered over the past 80-odd years, as greenhouse farming took root. The soil humidity is maximised within the greenhouses, soil erosion is minimised, and warm conditions are maintained through the year. 

The intensely controlled conditions inside the greenhouses result in yields that are 30 times higher than other farming methods. In addition to multiple harvests of crops in a year, greenhouses make producing crops even in the middle of winter possible. Almería produces around 3.5 million tonnes of fresh fruits and vegetables a year, with over 80% of it destined for export to European markets

But the farming here is far from under control. Because of the incredibly low rainfall, 80% of the water needed to irrigate the crops is extracted from the aquifer. Since the crops produced are more than 90% water, along with the exported fruits and vegetables, the region is losing more than 3 million cubic metres of virtual water every year. 

Environmental degradation

In addition to the loss of virtual water, the greenhouses are polluting the groundwater, as the pesticides and fertilisers that ensure high productivity are leaching into the aquifers. 

Even the surface waters in Almería are a bright green colour, indicative of pollution – thick with algae growing on the high levels of nutrients. 

Farmers often add chemicals to bleach the groundwater pumped into the storage ponds to prevent algae from clogging the irrigation systems, but which pollutes the groundwater further.

The water pollution is affecting the fauna too. Near the densest area of greenhouses in El Ejido is Punta Entinas-Sabinar Nature Reserve, home to wading birds including flamingos. Their habitat is threatened by the encroaching greenhouses and their increasing impacts on the water quality.

Changing social fabric

Meanwhile, the social fabric of Almería is also strained because of the scarcity of water and changing climate. With reduced yield in conventional farming, lack of access to water and increasing market pressure, many of the 15,000 farmers have been forced to sell their farms to large corporations. 

The future of socio-ecological systems in southern Spain is at huge risk from the intensification of farming. The migrant workers who tend to the greenhouses are believed to number more than 120,000, as many of them are undocumented. Often they are paid well below the minimum wage. They have no job security and live in insanitary conditions. For them too, it is a fight for access to clean water and a living wage, which essentially exacerbates the social inequalities in the region.

The demand for low-cost, year-round fruits and vegetables from northern Europe has forced the development of a farming system that exploits water and other natural resources, besides leading to the loss of virtual water. In the face of climate change, as extreme weather events threaten the local economy, the future of Almería – which encompasses the 700,000 people living in the province and the environment on which they depend – is highly uncertain.

The coast of the Spanish province of Almería was once a diverse region of scrubland, now only a small remnant is left in Cabo de Gata Natural Park. Photo: Neal Haddaway
A large storage pond in the hills above Almería, filled with water pumped from deep below the ground and used to irrigate nearby greenhouse crops. Photo: Neal Haddaway
An aerial view of the densest region of greenhouses near Roquetas del Mar. Photo: Neal Haddaway
The patchwork is made up of tens of thousands of small greenhouses. Photo: Neal Haddaway
The greenhouses are covered to maintain soil humidity, reduce erosion by the strong winds, and allow for carefully controlled irrigation. Photo: Neal Haddaway
A warehouse receives fruits and vegetables from across the region, which are then sorted and packaged for transport across Europe. Photo: Neal Haddaway
An irrigation pond holds water pumped up from the aquifer deep below the surface. Photo: Neal Haddaway
Leaching of vast amounts of pesticides and fertilisers has polluted the groundwater and aquifer, turning the surface waters green with overgrown algae. Photo: Neal Haddaway
These eutrophic waters saturated in nutrients and tinged green with algae are clearly seen from above. Photo: Neal Haddaway
Flamingos feed in the Punta Entinas-Sabinar Nature Reserve with the encroaching greenhouses seen close to the water’s edge. Photo: Neal Haddaway
Migrant workers live in poor and insanitary conditions in sheds, or ‘chabolas’, scattered amongst the greenhouses, often without access to running water. Photo: Neal Haddaway
Greenhouses are expanding to the east of Almería as the demand for low-cost, year-round fruits and vegetables increases across Europe. Photo: Neal Haddaway
Neal Haddaway
Neal Haddaway
Photographer and researcher studying for an MA in photojournalism from the University of the Arts London and a PhD in conservation and environmental science from the University of Leeds.
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