Thursday 15 March 2012

Troubled Spain, Portugal now desperate for rain


Fernando 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!" 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 now 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 dustbowl. An irrigation canal down the road holds only stagnant water, murky from so much sediment and so little flow. 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 Luna salvage at least part of their winter crops of wheat, barley and oats. And not all regions are as bad off as Huesca, a northern province where the Pyrenees lie and where 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 euro40 billion ($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 around euro1.3 billion ($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 another 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 euro2 million ($2.6 million) a day, according to ASAJA national spokesman Gregorio Juarez. "They're all burned up," says 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. In Portugal, Joao Dinis, a spokesman for Portugal's National Farms Confederation, said the drought has added to hardships caused by the country's acute financial crisis, which forced it to ask for a euro78 billion ($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. "It's the worst situation in living memory," Dinis said. He says Portuguese farmers need emergency aid of euro25 million ($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 (2-meter) sprinklers to soak a piece of land as big as 40 football fields. The pole-like 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," Allue said, 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. 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. Juarez, of ASAJA's Madrid office, says a drought is the last thing Spain needs now on top of its economic distress. He used 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.