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The Misdirection of Spanish Climate.

Spain is currently being repeatedly quoted as the main European example of “climate crisis” affecting Agriculture. Although I do not believe in climate crisis my argument here is NOT on the validity or otherwise of my beliefs. Rather, my argument is about the utter ignorance of Spanish climate and water supply that is being used as a misdirect to support what is a potentially valid argument about climate. I believe this is made worse by the polar nature of the world we live in dominated by social media and the ability for everyone regardless of whether they are informed or knowledgeable to give an opinion without thinking critically.

Why does this concern me? This concerns me because I have seen Spain repeatedly given as an example of climate crisis causing a European agricultural. This I believe is huge misdirect that ignores the limitations that Spain has experienced due to geography, geology, history, economics and politics. Like most “crises” the problems being experienced in Spain are man-made but cannot be used to evidence a climate crisis.

Spain is subject to extreme and varied climates ranging from Maritime climates to Saharan aridness. The geology of mountains creates regional climates with wet areas matched by rain shadow areas. This makes both farming and water management difficult and has done for thousands of years. Whilst I refer to Spain as one country, that is a very modern development. In reality it is a group of unified regions. The old regions being defined by historic and geographic differences.

The first to conquer these difficulties with an infrastructure of irrigation and land improvement were the Romans. The work of the Romans enabled the expansion of crop and fruit types. Of particular note is the fact that the Romans were good at tree planting as a longer-term investment in woods. Indeed, my birth county of Lincolnshire owes much of its surviving limewood plantations to the work of the Romans. As the Roman Empire subsided in the 3rd century the Goths entered and continued farming but with little or no maintenance of the infrastructure they inherited, indeed in some areas they damaged and destroyed it.

The 8th century saw the Moors enter Spain with great investment in both water management and agriculture. Indeed, they were possibly the first society to have agronomy as a science in a form that would be recognized by today’s agronomists. In the 12th century Ibh al-‘Awwam compiled much of the written agricultural knowledge of the area. The Moors introduced water management, irrigation and soil improvement as well as a wide range of new crops. They invested in the soil.

In the post Moorish period Spanish agriculture largely declined. Broadly speaking, in the North developed small farms and in the South large estates served by a peasantry with largely archaic farming methods that on some farms went back to Roman times. Indeed, in the early twentieth century it was possible to see ploughs of a first century Roman design being used on some Spanish farms whilst others were using the mechanized trappings of the Agricultural revolution. If labour is cheap and available there is no need to mechanize. Whilst even under the Moors climatic difficulties and crop failures were documented the resources of water and soil were largely well managed to mitigate the effects of the Spanish climate. In the post Moor period resources became mismanaged resulting in the regional climatic challenges having a far greater effect.

The nineteenth century did see an Agricultural Revolution where land use was expanded to serve cities and a growing export market. It also saw great deforestation to feed the needs of an expanding population and mismanagement of soil with disastrous results. This resulted in the following observations in the Pall Mall Gazette of 1871:

“TREES AS PREVENTATIVE OF DROUGHT ………. Spain, for instance. Man has stripped the soil of trees; the absence of trees has brought droughts; droughts have slowly diminished the protective powers of the ground, and finally destroyed them, the population in the meantime dwindling in numbers and vitality. Spain had 40million people in the time of the Romans, and flowed with milk and honey; it is now an arid region, only half of it is under cultivation, with only 16 million inhabitants, and if modern science had not come to its aid would probably go the way of Babylon.”

It has to be noted that the population of Spain would most likely be nearer 10million in Roman times, that is the 2nd Century A.D. and the current population of Spain has only just peaked 40 million in the last decade. But the message in the observation is fundamentally valid.

Spain has always been subject to extreme weather both heat frost and rain. It is NOT new and should not be used to support climate change policies.

1896 saw reports on the Crops in Spain in the Morning Post stating Seville oranges and failure of sugar cane around Malaga due to unexpected frosts. “This blow coming on top of the failure of the last olive harvest, the destruction of the raisin crop by the too early rains last year, and the severe drought of the previous three years that has practically ruined the country people.”

Let’s move on to living memory. Spain has experienced long-term droughts in the periods 1982 -1984, 1991 – 1998, and 2005 – 2009, as well as short term droughts starting in 1975, 1987 and 2000. This is normal weather patterns for the region and should not be attributed to climate change. The effects of drought, should however, be attributed to mismanagement of resources. Let’s face it, Spain as we recognize it politically today is a very young country. Trans regional co-operation and central government have been great challenges for it throughout the twentieth century. However, 1986 saw it join the European Union and with it came increased stability and financial investment with the country benefitting from investment in water supply and irrigation. 2018 saw this funding drop by 40%. On top of this, greater stability from the 1970’s on saw a great growth in tourism with the population of Spain dwarfed by over 50 million visitors a year. This may be economically good, but for water resources it spelt disaster as the typical tourist consumed between four and nine times the volume of water used by the average Spaniard. Thus, we see a country challenged by weather patterns that it has always experienced, with a population at an all time high and a tourist industry that gobbles up natural resource, especially water, at a destructive rate. We should then add to this an agricultural sector subsidized by the EU agricultural policy into great growth with more grains, pigs and poultry produced with ever more demands on soil and water. The resultant drought is the equivalent of a household or individual living beyond their means – it is a day of reckoning.

Then we see great declarations of “climate crisis” hitting Spain. This has a political motivation in Spain as it seeks to tap into an EU crisis mechanism. But it also suits a “climate change agenda”. Such crisis declaration is worth 450 million Euros to the Spanish – but unless they make structural changes they will be seeking a perpetual bail out because in terms of the natural resource of water they are simply living beyond their means.

Now what frustrates me is that all this is used to state that Spain is the golden example of food supply in Europe being hit by climate change. It simply is not. But then my view on climate tends to be unfashionable as stated in this rhyme:

The rain in Spain, says the refrain,

Falls, in the main, upon the plain.

Yet Britons ever live in doubt –

Expect the flood and get the drought;

Prepare for sunshine - suffer frost,

In ceaseless speculation lost.

With us it’s different altogether –

They have their climate

- We our weather![i]

A Spanish Mountain village in Costa Brava with white houses and a blue sky over looked by a Spanish castle
Costa Brava

[i] Mark Bevan – Birmingham Post 1902

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