Trans-Iberian

Trans-Iberian

Covering everything from the major news of the week and burning social issues, to expat living and la vida local, EL PAÍS’ team of English-language bloggers offers its opinions, observations and analysis on Spain and beyond.

Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of Andalucia.com and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at korenhelbig.com.

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area perelloplus.com. @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Spain-Holiday.com. Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check: www.lookingfordrama.com.

Spain’s troubled waters

Por: | 22 de marzo de 2013

 

Road to nowhere

 

Today, 22nd March, marks UN World Water Day 2013, its theme - ‘cooperation around water’.  However, as the Spanish Government repeals coastal protection rules and potentially revives controversial hydrological plans, water is not so much forging cooperation but a divisive element threatening to resurrect old divides.

 

For the Los Reyes public holiday in January this year I visited Osuna in Andalucía.  Whilst chatting to the hotel receptionist Maria, she said, for the first time ever during the fiesta, she’d been swimming outdoors as temperatures soared well over 20°C; and over the last decade she’d noticed winters becoming much hotter and drier.  It turns out she was right.

Last year Spain suffered its driest winter in 70 years; by summer 2012 the country was desiccant, its trees tinder; the consequence - a catalogue of forest infernos that rampaged through regions from Catalonia to Andalucía.  I myself witnessed first hand the eerie smog and grey ash rain from blazes in the Guadarrama Mountains.  Malaga suffered what officials described as ‘the worst fires in living memory’ with over 12,000 hectares obliterated.

Barely a month later in September 2012, Andalucía suffered its worst flood in a decade.  Torrential rains and violent storms led to flash deluges of biblical proportions killing ten people.  Yet, EU Joint Research Centre (JRC) research showed that with less than 200mm of fresh water available annually and consumption at least three times this, Spain is facing a serious problem.  The European Environment Agency (EEA) has warned that Spain is highly vulnerable to climate change.  It’s already lost 90% of its glaciers - the remaining expected to disappear within decades, leading to further water shortages as rivers depending on ice-melt shrivel up.  The Centre for Climate Adaption says the average temperature in Spain is predicted to rise 4°C by 2080 and extreme summers are likely to increase fourfold.  Precipitation is projected to decrease 5% in most of Spain - and by a staggering 10% in the southwest by 2040.  This combination will result in creeping desertification and water scarcity. 

Water and the economy

Spain is starting to count the cost of climate change which has already impacted Spain’s €2 billion wine industry; vineyards are being moved to cooler and moister climes.  Olive Oil Times reports that Spain is going the same way as Greece and Italy which have both seen production of olive oil halve since the early 2000’s.  2012 saw Spain’s harvest drop 40% due to drought.  Manuel Vargas Yáñez, author of the book Cambio Climático en el Mediterráneo Español says: ‘Sea level in the Mediterranean has risen by between 1 and 1.5mm each year since 1943, […] it now seems that the speed at which it is rising is accelerating’.  The sea is consuming Spain’s beaches and this could have serious consequences for the tourism industry.

Exploitation of water sources

As Spain seeks new water sources it’s encountering water exploration side effects.  It’s thought massive extraction of groundwater had helped unleash the deadly earthquake in Lorca in May 2011 that killed nine people, left hundreds injured and homeless and decimated priceless monuments.  Depletion of the water table by illegal wells is shrinking Spain’s irreplaceable wetlands - vital habitats for millions of the region’s indigenous birds as well as countless migrating species.  Birdlife’s Manuel Mendez has said that Spanish wetlands are endangered yet there is no commitment to ensure their conservation.  Another key problem is the salinisation of Spain’s rivers.  Research by the Department of Ecology at the University of Barcelona found that high levels of salinity in Spain’s waterways caused by industrial waste discharges and farming residues has led to excessive salt concentrations with huge ramifications for Spain’s potable drinking water.

Mismanagement and corruption

However, some regions have implemented policies that exacerbate the water problem.  Farmers in arid areas such as Murcia are planting water-thirsty crops like tomatoes and lettuce; and land has been transformed into golf courses and resorts that guzzle billions of gallons of water daily with farmers buying and selling water on a growing black market.  Many believe overexploitation has been spurred on by the bribing of local officials.  Chema Gil, a journalist who exposed such a plot has faced death threats: ‘The model of Murcia is completely unsustainable […] We consume two and a half times more water than the system can recover.  […] All the water we’re using to water lettuce and golf courses will be needed just to drink.’

Reckless development

Despite this, the Government is controversially repealing the Coastal Act to free up 8,000km of coastal land for development with the capacity to build about 40,000 homes.  Detractors say this makes no sense economically speaking given Spain’s property industry is in meltdown with some coastal property values dropping 75%.  From an environmental perspective, there’s simply not enough fresh water to sustain any further construction and this will impact UNESCO protected wetland sites such as Doñana, threatening their status and the tourism associated with it.  Moreover, given sea levels are rising as well as the risk of coastal flooding, this is downright reckless.  Critics are incredulous that the Government is promoting construction just as Spain has gone cap-in-hand to Europe for a bail out of its banking sector which failed due to the construction crash.  As the recent expose by El Pais shows, corruption amongst the political classes is rife in Spain - many commentators believe it’s this that’s at the root of such unworkable policies.

Juan Carlos del Olmo, Secretary General of WWF, said: ‘The decision [to repeal the Act] is setting the situation back 40 years, when Spain endured the worst urban development on the coast […] the reform was made without adequate public participation’.  Meanwhile, the WWF conservation director, Enrique Segovia, insisted that corruption ‘which is out of hand’ defines how it worked Spain and was one of the reasons there was a feeling that you can use natural resources with impunity.

National Water Plan

The demolition of coastal protection is not the only major controversy emerging over water.  On 21st December 2012, Miguel Arias Cañete was appointed agriculture and environment minister - the same minister, who in 2001, under José María Aznar’s Popular Party (PP), approved a National Water Plan (NWP) to divert water from the Ebro River in the north to zones such as Valencia, Almeria and Murcia in the south.  This was shelved in 2004 under PSOE party leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero due to mass opposition in Catalonia; and because the EU refused to finance it given it was contrary to European environmental policy.  In Catalonia storm sirens are sounding.  Catalan News Agency reports suggest Cañete has mentioned carrying out a form of the NWP that many had believed was dead in the water; and though he has not directly referred to the Ebro River diversion, Catalan Minister for Sustainability and Territory, Lluís Recoder, believes that new water plans might be worded in a way that could allow river diversion to leak through the back door.  Indeed, Cañete’s reappointment has been a viewed as a boost for supporters of the water plan.  The national irrigators’ federation FENACORE described Cañete as ‘a guarantee for the sector’.  Antonio Cerdá, Murcian minister for agriculture and water, compared his appointment to ‘winning the lottery’.  

Luis M. Jiménez Herrero, executive director of Spain’s Observatorio de la Sostenibilidad said to me that the danger of the water plan has largely passed ‘because of the country's economic crisis and because it would entail a considerable impact on the territory, with huge environmental costs.  Furthermore, as Spain is a very vulnerable to climate change, developing a project of this calibre might not work at all in some years.’

However, given the repeal of the Coastal Act, a mechanism put in place 25 years ago to protect the coast, it’s not so difficult to believe the Government might not dredge up its water plan and forge ahead despite the huge wave of opposition.  Sadly it seems that calls for cooperation this World Water Day are likely to be drowned out by the decrees of power politics.

 

Photography: Charles Ansdell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chávez’s debut

Por: | 06 de marzo de 2013

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The Monday night of February 3, 1992, I was coming home after having dinner and drinks with a few colleagues from The Daily Journal, the now-defunct English-language newspaper in Caracas, Venezuela where I worked for six years. It was a typical weekday late evening in the Venezuelan capital with so many noisy mini buses ferrying workers home across the city while  popular merengue tunes blared from their drivers’ radios. We lived just on the edge of downtown, not far from the suburbs, but a reasonably close distance from the center where the newspaper’s offices were located.  The Daily Journal, considered Latin America’s oldest English language daily, was widely respected across Venezuela because of its nonpartisan stance. I had two jobs at the time. In the early mornings, I produced a daily 15-minute English program on Radio Nacional de Venezuela that was broadcast across the globe on shortwave, so weeknights meant getting to bed as early as possible. As I was heading home on the por puesto, as the micro buses are known, I noticed a lot of police and military vehicles headed the opposite way toward the center of town. When I got home I fell asleep but a few hours later a startling rap on the front door suddenly woke me. Golpe de estado, my stunned elderly neighbor announced.

I switched on television to see the images around Miraflores presidential palace surrounded by tanks and young soldiers - many looking scared - brandishing their automatic weapons in menacing gestures. No one knew where President Carlos Andrés Pérez was. For months, there had been rumors about discontent within the military because of the deteriorating economy, bleak social conditions and rampant public corruption. But repeating rumors in Venezuela was, and continues to be, a national pastime. Who was behind the coup was the $64,000 question; not even the television newscasters, who fortunate enough were left unbothered to continue to do their jobs and provide excellent on-the-scene coverage, knew exactly what was happening.

I phoned my co-workers at the radio station and newspaper and we decided to sit tight for the time being. Still, my concern was getting the news out to the world on the shortwave bands and in English. It would take a few more years before the “super information highway,” now known as the internet, would become a household outlet to the world but back then a country’s national radio was the prime source of official news and regularly monitored by the BBC, VOA, RFI and other major broadcasters. Our station wasn’t a powerhouse, but at 50 kilowatts it could still be easily picked up across Europe and North America.

Needless to say, there was no more bed rest for the entire evening or the day that followed. Fighter jets roared over our neighborhood at seemingly random intervals while distant gunfire added to the haunting ambiance that permeated across the city. State-run television station Venezolana de Televisión, channel 8, had been taken over by rebel troops but they didn’t know how to work the controls to get their message on the air. From Zulia state, the identity of one rebel finally emerged. Lt. Col. Francisco Arias Cárdenas of the self-proclaimed Bolivarian 200 Revolutionary Movement had full control of Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city and the country’s petroleum producing hub. It was only a matter of time before Caracas fell. But at 3.30am, a weary and worried President Pérez, standing alongside the Venezuelan flag before a black curtain backdrop, finally came on air on the private Venevisión television network demanding that all the rebels retreat to their barracks while assuring loyalists that the situation under control. It was later learned he barely escaped with his life running through the underground tunnels of Miraflores Palace.

At daybreak, I decided to head off to the station. For a normally bustling Latin American capital, Caracas was dead silent. The streets were empty so it was easy to get to Radio Nacional’s studios without any problem. The rebels never took over the radio station, which was heavily guarded. My French- and Haitian Creole-speaking colleagues and I went straight to work to prepare our  respective broadcasts. By 7am we were on the air and managed to get out nine transmissions at each half hour in four languages. Shortly before noon, when I knew it was near time to get back out on the streets and head on over to The Daily Journal’s offices, all television stations went to a live nationwide broadcast in which it was announced that the leader of the coup had finally been captured and would address the nation. Heavily escorted, the young and serious-looking soldier wearing a red beret, the stamp of a Venezuelan paratrooper, was paraded in front of clicking cameras inside a paneled conference room. He was identified as Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez Frías. In his brief remarks, he thanked those who supported him and asked his rebel soldiers to lay down their weapons, but punctuated his call with the following message: “the cause is lost for now.” Along with the image of a bold, assured man who seemed unconcerned that he would probably spend the rest of his life in prison, that phrase resonated with Venezuelans for the years to come. By the time it was over, at around 5pm on February 4, 133 officers and 956 soldiers had been arrested for taking part in the coup.

He hadn’t been defeated. After another coup attempt that following November led by his supporters and a disgraced exit by Pérez, who was ousted from the presidency for misusing a secret national security fund, Chávez, pardoned by President Rafael Caldera, found that his time finally came when Venezuelans swept him into office in 1998. Fifteen years later, el comandante, who died at age 58, has left behind an uncertain future and a country as bitterly divided as it was in 1992.

El País

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