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We are eating their water!

Teruel Existe

SPAIN IS INVADING GERMANY – or, better phrased, Spanish vegetables and fruits are dominating our supermarket shelves.

This is because customers are expecting a great variety of fresh goods in stores, even out of season. As hardly anything is growing in the German fields during winter, it is necessary to import fresh products. But what is less obvious to customers is the ecological consequences that food-exporting countries have to face. Our food consumption habits in Germany are influencing the severe water situation in the southern part of Europe: we are eating their water!

So how can an imported strawberry or tomato affect water scarcity in Spain? By simple supply-and-demand relations. In arid regions of the country, farmers have resorted to irrigation in order to satisfy foreign markets. The European privilege of consuming whatever we want, whenever we want, comes at a high price.

According to the German Fruit Trade Association (DFHV), a mere 20 per cent of all fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in Germany are actually harvested and cultivated within the country. The other 80 per cent are imported from elsewhere, half of which from Spain. Direct result of this is the a high amount of water traded within the EU. Indirect impact is the overexploitation of water and the agricultural misuse of resources, leading to scarcity in such regions of Southern Europe. The World Resources Institute classifies it as a high level water stress country. While it is actually one of the most threatened nation in Europe, food production and export remains as one of the biggest industries: 80 per cent of the total amount of water is used in agriculture – mostly for irrigation.

Old-fashioned irrigation systems

In Spain more than 60 per cent of the agricultural products are irrigated goods, that is because  “irrigation enables crop production where water would otherwise be a limiting factor”, says the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen.

Calling irrigation a bad thing would be misleading though. Water is a limiting factor in Spain, so using irrigation in agriculture is necessary for cultivation and enhancing the quality and yield of the crops. But there are more and less efficient systems. Sprinklers and drip irrigation have a better effect than the use of flooding of whole fields and furrow irrigation, because a lot of water just seeps away. In the South of the country, there is an area of permanent irrigation of around 3.9 million hectares, where the farmers use surface irrigation systems. Only a low number of farmers use sprinklers to water their fields. In this way, approximately 70 per cent of the freshwater is wasted and not returned to the water body.

Changing to a more efficient system in Spain would be necessary, also because way more water is needed to produce goods than one might think. Whenever we eat one kilogram of beef, 15,000 litres of water is used for animal fodder such as soy or barley according to  the German Water protection Association. An average of 22 kilograms of tomatoes are consumed by every German per year, which equals 4,000 litres of water used. Producing one kilogram of strawberries, it takes 276 litres of water. In Spain, the scarcity of the blue treasure means it is partly illegally used, criticises the NGO.

However, this is not the only dark side of the medal. Usually the peak water abstraction period is during the hottest time of the year – summer. It is also the period where the least water is available. Through inefficient irrigation systems, even more water is wasted. Worse still, the more water that is exploited, the more severe the water shortages during dry periods. Water use in this regions exceeds the availability of fresh water, and leads to increased water stress and risk of droughts in upcoming years. A vicious circle that has to be broken.

“Some estimate that approximately a quarter of water abstracted for irrigation in Europe could be saved, just by changing the type of pipes or channels used,” questions Jacqueline McGlade, executive director at EEA. To her, the problem of water shortages might just fade away from the public eye. “But they don‘t change the way they do business”, she says, expressing her lack of understanding of this ignorance.

If agriculture is unavoidable, what can be done?

At macro level, rethinking food security policies to adequately manage plantations according to regional resources. Farmers can invest in less consuming techniques. Consumers can opt for shopping for fruits and vegetables that are within season.

It is all about money

Wolfram Mauser, professor for global change, hydrology and climate change at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich and former scientific consultant for EU concerning climate change, sees a big problem in EU’s practised financial support of farmers. “Traditional and old cultivation plants such as olive trees could grow under natural conditions in Spain, but they don‘t bring that much money. But who covers the financial disadvantage of the farmers? No one.” Farmers look for better revenue. At the same time, EU subsidies are tending to support plants with a high need of water, such as strawberries or tomatoes. That is why farmers are prone to shift from rain-fed agriculture to irrigated agriculture.

THE FUTURE – a bad or good ending?

Listening to Wolfram Mauser, it seems like Scandinavia will take over the task as main food supporter in Europe. “The Mediterranean region will face even more severe water stress and scarcity as they have so far”, according to the expert. In contrast, “Northern Europe will get warmer and more arid – ideal conditions for agriculture”.

The Spanish expert for desertification at the University of Valencia, Vicente Andreu, and the head of the College of Forestry in Spain, Carlos del Alamo, draw even a darker picture. According to them, Spain is already facing ongoing desertification. In their predictions, biological diversity will be lost, people lose their jobs and eventually their homes, due to inevitable poverty.

Solutions vary. The EEA suggests changing the regulations for financial support of farmers: “If they would have to pay the real and full costs of the water volume they use to irrigate their crops, they would more likely change to less water intensive irrigation systems”. WWF Germany goes further and looks at reutilisation of waste water, which is often nutrient rich. This should reduce the use of further fertilizers and increase efficiency.

Ybele Hoogeveen, also from the European Environment agency even sees some responsibilities customers should take. “The choice of food is one of the most fundamental choices we can make.” Making the food system, including the production, transport and retail more sustainable and make the public aware of the problems behind this unlimited offer of goods and products is the first but major step towards a more ecologically responsible and water sustainable Europe.

It is about time.

Words by Barbara Konturek

Picture by Pollobarba

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