In the scorching heat, Felipe Elvira inspects the branches of his olive trees, which stretch as far as the eye can see on a dusty hill in southern Spain. “In these, there are no olives. Everything is dry,” he threw up worryingly.
Owner with his son of a 100-hectare farm in Jaén, the cradle of olive oil in Andalusia, this 68-year-old farmer is in danger of losing a large part of his crop due to the severe drought in the country.
“Here we are, used to being dry, but to that degree, no,” sighs this sixty-year-old in a plaid shirt, white hair, and thick eyebrows. “Before that, 800 liters of water per square meter was falling per year. Now we will have 300 or 400 liters, nothing more … It rains less and less,” he said wistfully.
On the front line in Europe in the face of the effects of climate change, Spain has suffered three exceptional heat waves since May, further weakening crops that have already suffered a drier-than-normal winter.
“Olive trees are very resistant to water stress,” explains Juan Carlos Hervas, agronomist at the agricultural union COAG. When there is extreme heat, he adds, “they activate the physiological mechanisms to protect themselves: they don’t die, but production doesn’t.”
Very bad news for olive growers in the area. “On dry land (without irrigation), we will not reach 20% of the average production in the last five years. On irrigated land, we will have 50 or 60%,” the technician predicts.
In fact, water reserves are anemic. Rosario Jiménez, professor of hydrology at the University of Jaén, stresses that “Andalusia’s water supply depends on the Guadalquivir basin, which supplies almost the entire region,” which is a very tragic situation.
According to the Ministry of Environmental Transformation, the reserves fed by the river and its tributaries are currently only 30% of their capacity. The researcher insists that some tanks have “even fallen to levels below 10%, or are already practically dry”.
As a result of climate change and extreme weather events, which farmers in the region have been monitoring for years.
“Every time it rains less than before, and when it rains, it rains profusely: it produces too much runoff, and the earth doesn’t have time to store it,” explains Juan Carlos Hervas.
According to a study published in early July in the journal Nature Geoscience, the Iberian Peninsula was not so arid a thousand years ago. And this phenomenon will continue to worsen, with the risk of seriously affecting some crops such as vineyards and olive trees.
A potentially disastrous prospect in Spain, where nearly half of the planet’s olive oil is produced, with exports of €3.6 billion annually.
Hervas asserts that “many towns in the territory depend on the olive tree. If it is no longer producing, there will be no more income.”
According to COAG, seven out of every ten hectares in Spain are currently cultivated without irrigation. But as temperatures rise, 80% of Andalusia’s dry plots are no longer “suitable for olive groves,” at least for some varieties.
Production quality could also decline because farmers would be forced to “early harvest” the less ripe olives, the union insists in a report titled “The Countdown Begins.”
To reduce losses, some may be tempted to increase the number of irrigated land. But this solution would weaken the reserves a little more, at a time when southern Spain is already targeting overexploitation of water in intensive crops.
Today, “agriculture takes up 70 or 80% of the resources,” says Rosario Jimenez, who says she fears there may be water shortages in some towns, which are already facing “specific water cuts.”
From his land, Felipe Elvira realizes the problem. “The aquifer will end up depleted, and water is needed for everyone,” admits the farmer, “not very optimistic” about the future: “Frankly, I don’t know what we are going to do.”
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