Golf and housing boom threatens parched province

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The Independent Online

Autumn rains are sweeping Spain after months of sunshine, but they do little to solve the severe water shortage afflicting the parched south. Much of the coastline of Murcia, with its bare rock and badlands, resembles north Africa rather than Europe.

Autumn rains are sweeping Spain after months of sunshine, but they do little to solve the severe water shortage afflicting the parched south. Much of the coastline of Murcia, with its bare rock and badlands, resembles north Africa rather than Europe.

Thirsty businesses are multiplying, draining sparse water. Giant cranes fret the sky in a property boom drawing thousands of British settlers to villas and apartments that march across one of Spain's last tracts of unspoilt southern shore.

Greenhouses produce salads for the supermarkets of Europe. They occupy what developers consider wasteland, but which environmentalists call the last vestige of an ecosystem threatened with destruction. In Murcia, the ecologists are warning of catastrophe.

Phil Cochrane and his wife, Christine, sold their publishing business near Oldham last year to retire to a spacious new home with views towards the Costa Calida. "We love it here. People are so friendly, and we're near the golf course," Mr Cochrane says as he shows off his house, his pool, his terrace bar and his olive tree.

Thousands of like-minded Britons are snapping up luxury properties along the Murcian coast, drawn by the sun, the tranquillity and the golf. But Murcia is a desert, where it rains perhaps twice or three times a year. Water for the pool, the showers, the golf courses, the shopping malls and the social clubs is piped from distant rivers or drawn from fast-depleting aquifers.

The government in Madrid says no new water is used for agriculture, housing developments or golf courses, that it's all recycled. But environmentalists say new illegal wells are being driven ever deeper into this arid ground to meet demand. "Thousands of new wells have been dug illegally in Murcia, and resources are being exhausted," says Julia Martinez, a hydrological scientist at Murcia university and spokeswoman for Ecologists in Action. "Every few years there's an amnesty for illegal wells, but demand for water is unstoppable: every drop supplied creates the demand for two more.

Murcia pins its hopes on a national plan to divert water from the Ebro river that flows through the rainy regions of Catalonia and Aragon. The plan will cost ¤4.3bn (£3bn), and Spain hopes for a hefty EU subsidy. Margot Wallstrom, environment commissioner, must decide if the environmental guarantees are sufficient to grant approval later this month.

Pascual Maragall, Catalonia's Socialist leader, is promising "not to supply a drop of water to the south-east, because they don't know how to save water as we do". The Ebro transfer would not be needed if existing supplies were better used, he says.

Gonzalo Gonzalez, an environmental scientist at Murcia University, says: "Ancient springs are drying up, and water is becoming contaminated with salts and nitrates. Wells penetrate 600 metres, the water table is falling and aquifers are saying 'basta' [enough]." Spain's good water laws "are not enforced".

The road south from Murcia town to the coastal towns of Mazarron and Aguilas crosses terrain that could be Arizona, gashed by bulldozers, dotted by gleaming housing developments, punctuated by swimming pool merchants, their blue polystyrene wares propped up like giant roadside milestones. Officials within the regional water authorities have raised the alarm but have been ignored, campaigners say.

Maria Vicente Oliveros, a senior legal official for Murcia's water board, tried to blow the whistle on powerful landowners in northern Murcia alleged to be exploiting illegal wells and fraudulently seeking EU funds for illegal irrigation. But Ms Oliveros died in a car accident last year as she was driving to Madrid to hand the documents to state prosecutors in Madrid. The brakes are said to have failed on her Mercedes, and the documents disappeared.

The stench of sewage rises from a brackish stream near one building complex. Half the coastline designated as natural open space between Mazarron and Aguilas was declassified and is disappearing beneath asphalt. "This kind of overdevelopment is simply unsustainable," Ms Martinez says.

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