Spaniards squabble as drought hits south

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THE RAIN in Spain is falling not even on the plain. One of the worst droughts this century is parching the entire southern half of the country, provoking village water wars and inter-regional resentment, and posing a serious threat to the ruling Socialist Party in an election year. Farmers have held communal prayers for rain in several southern cathedrals.

In the Andalusian city of Seville, where as recently as three months ago visitors to Expo 92 wandered among fountains, waterfalls and artificial lakes aimed at keeping them cool, citizens are now forced to survive without running water for 12 hours a day. The golf courses of the country's jet set are turning brown and unplayable.

In the south-western port city of Cadiz, the supply is cut off for 10 hours a day. In Toledo, in the heart of the peninsula, scarcely- potable water is being pumped directly from the River Tagus after the local reservoirs dried up into little more than mudflats.

Madrid's reserves are said to be adequate for this year, but the lack of rain, combined with traffic, industrial and coal pollution in a particularly cold winter, has shrouded the capital in a thick grey smog during much of the new year, causing a sharp rise in smog- related illnesses.

Madrilenos are faced with their worst nightmare, the thought of having to leave their cars at home and walk from shop to shop under stand-by emergency measures should the pollution worsen.

Despite adequate reserves in the northern half of the country, a lack of infrastructure, political jostling and plain ill will has so far prevented the north from helping out the south.

'There's an abundance of water in Spain,' insists the Public Works and Transport minister Jose Borrell, who has accused the autonomous community (region) of Aragon of 'a lack of solidarity' for allegedly hoarding water and failing to come to the aid of drier regions.

Aragon, increasingly seeking to emulate the Basque country and Catalonia by winning greater autonomy, straddles the Ebro, the Iberian peninsula's longest river.

'Aragon is not Venice. We are not sitting on water,' replies Aragon's regional government and party leader Emilio Eiroa. He blames the ruling Socialists of Felipe Gonzalez for a lack of hydraulic planning, and pointedly tells Mr Gonzalez that the state has ignored investment in Aragon for years, notably when it came to constructing reservoirs.

'We've been pumping reserves to other regions for years,' says Mr Eiroa. 'Reserves of Aragonese people forced to leave for elsewhere because of lack of jobs at home.'

Shotguns, sticks and stones have been used in several villages where feuds have erupted over the rights to use what used to be merely supplementary or decorative wells.

In Seville, the famous fino sherry bodegas are forced to use plastic glasses because of the lack of water to wash up. The running water supply goes off from 7pm to 7am. Any EC enterpreneur with a surplus of mineral water should test the single market and head for the city forthwith. Bottled water sales have already gone up 35- fold.

With irrigation strictly forbidden in most areas, southern farmers, who lost around half their crops as the drought began last year, fear total wipe-out this year. Without rain soon, the February sowing of such crops as rice, cotton or sunflower will be impossible, they say.

Meanwhile, the central government remains stoical. 'There is no cause for alarm,' said Vicente Albero, Secretary of State for the Environment, yesterday. 'Statistically, it has to rain.'

(Photograph omitted)