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Water and strife in the Sierra Nevada

There’s a slight sheepishness to Felix’s voice when he admits that restoring ancient Moorish irrigation channels isn’t really on the cards for the time being. With two young daughters, a smallholding and a nascent forest school for local children, his hands are full enough already.

And the acequias are nothing if not labour intensive.

Introduced into southern Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountain range by medieval Berber and Arab settlers, this system has operated with a remarkable degree of continuity for centuries.

Experts call it a ‘Farmer Managed Irrigation System’ (FMIS), a ‘Managed Aquifer Recharge’ (MAR) system, and regard it as an example of ‘Integrated Water Resource Management’ (IWRM). For local people, the acequias are simply part of the landscape. But they may not be for much longer.

Summers are getting longer, and hotter. Winters are getting shorter, and are some years absent altogether.

The acequias are designed to catch the winter’s snowmelt in a complex series of dirt channels and underground aquifers, and to slowly (and equitably) release that water to those farming down the mountain side. In so doing, they allow isolated farmsteads operating in semi-arid conditions to survive long, hot summers. 

They rely on traditional knowledge, accumulated and stored over generations; they rely also on a large, healthy land-working population willing to maintain the acequias all year round, and ensure that these rudimentary channels are kept clear of debris. Perhaps most importantly, they rely on a model of agriculture willing to eschew short-term efficiency for long-term gain.

In the 21st century, the acequia system is buckling under a number of external pressures. Summers are getting longer, and hotter. Winters are getting shorter, and are some years absent altogether. One local, Juan-Jose, tells me that the difference in annual snowfall between his boyhood and the present day is remarkable. It’s a statement often repeated by the area’s older residents.

The Sierra Nevada falls within Andalucía—one of the Spanish regions worst affected by climate change. Fears of desertification are now widespread in Spanish public discourse; and those fears centre on places like Andalucía . 

In past years, the mountain communities of the Alpujarra (an area which describes the Sierra Nevada’s southern slopes) have avoided the intense aridity of places like Almería in the southern coastal flatlands. These days, that distinction is fading.


Part of the explanation lies in the model of land-use currently favoured in the Sierra Nevada. My conversations with local people quickly reveal resentment with the preponderance of big, commercial growers whose livelihood rests on their willingness to grow water-hungry monocrops, like cherry tomatoes or courgettes, and sell their produce to big supermarkets.

But there are other factors at play: some regional, others national or even global. The truly heartbreaking thing about the acequias is this: even if local communities had consensus about their usefulness as an agricultural resource, and their value as a cultural inheritance, I’d still have my doubts about whether Alpujarra residents have the power to save them.

I spoke to those acquainted with the acequia system to gauge their measure of optimism—or indeed, despair—for its continued survival in a changing world.

The pipes narrow down to small branches, each equipped with several sprinklers which gently but persistently trickle their flow right to the base of the plants that need attention.

Let’s start with Felix. For a couple of weeks I worked on Felix’s smallholding, located just 15 minutes drive from the village of Yegen. One of my duties was to water his vegetables every morning.

From a small reservoir (or balsa) at the top of his land, Felix runs a series of pipes down to his crops. The emphasis here isn’t on commercial growing: Felix and his wife Maia are aiming for self-sufficiency, and have made their home here on the mountain side hoping to live in harmony with natural processes.

A series of taps allows you to water one little plot of vegetables at a time: ideally for 5 minutes each. The pipes narrow down to small branches, each equipped with several sprinklers which gently but persistently trickle their flow right to the base of the plants that need attention.

This isn’t quite drip irrigation, but it falls into a similar category of modern, scientific precision. Water is directed to exactly where it needs to go, and little is wasted along the way. In a situation of water scarcity, who would suggest doing otherwise?

November 2021 Las Alpujarras, Andalucía

“...you’re playing with water really, and getting the water to go where you want it to go”.

“Concrete and pipes are so … effective, basically. If you’re running a pipe through a dirt acequia, you’re losing water, and if that’s in a dry time, you don’t wanna lose water. So there’s an incentive to concrete it, or get it running through a pipe”.

Although Felix’s balsa is filled up partly by an acequia route, running down from the ‘mother balsa’ up in Yegen village, and partly by a nearby spring that he has cannily tapped into, he is not watering his land in a manner consistent with how the acequias were designed to be used. In terms of time and money, he simply can’t justify doing so.

But he has watered crops this way before, on his friend Ronnie’s land, where he was struck by the creative, playful aspect of the method: “you’re playing with water really, and getting the water to go where you want it to go”.

“I thought it was fun … it was entertaining. You’re actually digging channels, and what was puzzling about it is that you’re flood-watering, which I’d never seen before … it seemed like maybe you’re wasting quite a lot of water. I wondered: will the plant be alright, being submerged like that?”

Flooding is crucial to how the acequias work: for a certain amount of time each cycle (or tanda), each plot of land (or parcella) is allowed a certain chorro of water. The length of a tanda varies year-round, starting out at 7 or 8 days during the wet season and extending to as much as a fortnight during the summer.

For Felix and for other extranjero farmers in the Alpujarra, the exact quantification of a chorro possesses an element of mystery. It seems to express an element of both width and time. Felix recalls a warning he once received from an Alpujarra native: “ ‘Look, if you’re not born here, you’ll never really understand this stuff’ ”.

“There’s a lot of knowledge hidden in the system”, I was told by Tom, another extranjero whose role in the grandly-named Communidad de Regantes was to explain the acequias’ working, and their various rights to its water to extranjero farmers.

“After moving to Spain in 2001/2, it took me 2 or 3 years to understand the system”.

The acequias are a socially managed resource: although they require strict superintendence to avoid neglect or misuse, neighbourly cooperation is indispensable to the system’s working.

Both Tom and Felix stress that building trust with local people is crucial—as an outsider—to gaining an understanding of your rights to the community water. As a communally managed resource, it is especially vulnerable to local power politics.

Felix tells me that at least once, his neighbour has deliberately misled him about the timing of his chorro. “People are playing funny games to try and get a bit more than other people … maybe someone is an outsider, and maybe they don’t know, then you can tell them: ‘oh, its actually not your turn this week, it’s not until next week’”.

These ‘games’ are more serious than they sound. If your livelihood rests on your crop, and your crop dies because of a lack of water, you will find yourself rather quickly in a perilous place.

Trust and confidence in the system relies on the fairness and efficiency of the reigning acequero, the officer in charge of monitoring the acequias and ensuring everyone gets their share. But in a small place, when water is scarce, bitterness over water disputes can be long lasting and even violent.

So there’s a darker side to the acequias. An outsider trying to farm in this land really has to “fight their corner”.

“It can descend pretty quickly into chaos, and violence—genuine violence—‘cause it’s during those dry times … it’s a primal thing. And when people feel their livelihood is threatened… they’ll respond on the basis of that”.

 “If I want water, when it’s my turn, I do this”.

Pedro is a Dutch oboist and lives in Yegen about 5 months a year. He stresses that he’s not a professional grower, and therefore doesn’t rely on the acequias for his livelihood. For him, they are things of wonder: they represent the pre-industrial romanticism with which he associates Spain itself.

He has a number of beautiful lemon and olive trees growing in a small plot of land, right at the southern foot of Yegen village; and he was kind enough to walk me through narrow, winding streets to demonstrate how his land is fed by the ‘mother balsa’.

We start at the village square. Old men fill up their water bottles; cats and dogs face each other down in an ancient, unending rivalry. Peer into the narrow gap that runs around the rim of the square and you’ll see a reservoir, churning restlessly beneath the human activity above.

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Tip over a metal manhole cover and you can see taps, pointing in different directions. “Today it’s not my day: today it’s going that way”. Pedro points to our right, and tells us that today, people living on the eastern side of the mountain are receiving their share. “If I want water, when it’s my turn, I do this”. He mimes opening a tap at the southern side of the manhole.

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This is only the first ‘gate’ in a long series through which the water must pass before it reaches his land.

We walk down the hill and Pedro shows me another diversion. “These guys get it first, when they’re done, they give me a shout, they turn this tap, and it keeps going towards me”.

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Eventually we reach the final ‘gate’, beneath another manhole cover. From here the water can be diverted left so that it comes crashing down and out, over a rough patch of wilderness, to reach his land below.

I am amazed to find hand-dug channels approaching, enveloping and then leaving isolated lemon and olive trees.

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This system is rudimentary: farmers use whatever comes to hand to block off certain channels and, as Felix said, make the water go where they want it to go. That means rocks, old pieces of metal or sack cloth.

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The overgrown, messy patch through which Pedro’s water supply runs is owned by a property speculator, living away from Yegen. The owner has no intention to do anything productive with that land, and enjoys little connection with the village.

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Because this part of the acequia route is dirt-lined, a great deal of water is being lost to that wilderness: water that could have been used in a more focused, productive way. Didn’t that frustrate him? He answered yes; but as a non-commercial grower, it wasn’t enough to tip frustration into anger.

When Pedro’s turn comes later that week, he is kind enough to send me photos of the flooding:

Credit: Peter Frankenburg

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My mind was starting to piece things together; I was coming to suspect that there must be some value, as well vulnerability, in an unbalanced system like this, a suspicion confirmed when Tom later tells me:

“Yes, the acequias need to leak”.

The inefficiency of the acequias is an inseparable part of their working. Water that is lost as it runs down the mountain side in dirt-lined acequias drains down through layers of rock to fill up underground aquifers, where it is preserved through the year and accessed later.

Surface-level leaks support other forms of plant and animal life that farmers perhaps don’t intentionally grow but whose value to the ecosystem (and of course eventually, to the productive crops that farmers do intentionally grow) can perhaps never be properly understood.

Although local people can’t identify this loss precisely, they can see its effects around them.

The answer could only lie in generous, state-provided compensation.

Tom speaks with an almost heart-breaking sadness about the steady decline in insect and plant life that he witnessed on his own land, which he held in the Yegen area for 18 years.

“I felt bad for every tree that died”.

Tom has now moved north, to Asturias, because he “couldn’t stand the heat” in Andalucía. I found Tom’s climate pessimism rather moving. He judged that the acequias would be gone in only a few years.

As a keen observer and protector of the acequias, he drafted a plan in 2016 for their protection. He realised that to preserve them, you had to break up the highway between Cadiz and Almería. You also needed to break up cities—a plan that I can’t help agreeing was “socially unacceptable”.

I ask if it would be possible to outlaw the use of drip irrigation in the Alpujarra. This, he tells me, would bankrupt the farmers. The answer could only lie in generous, state-provided compensation. “You would have to pay them to use the land as their grandparents did”.

On top of this, you would need many more people working the land.

In the 1970s, distribution of land in the Alpujarra looked very different. Most of it was owned by a handful of big landowners, who rented out small plots of land to hundreds of farming families. The plots were on average a hectare each: just enough to grow food for a family. This made it essential that farmers took care of communal resources.

Those feudal land-holding relationships have been disrupted by the same market forces that encourage farmers to use water as efficiently as possible, through methods that are restricting the overall water supply.

Now there are only about 20 farmers represented in the Communidad de Regantes. They are more likely to own their own land, and they need to squeeze a profit from what they have.

They are almost certain to prefer the use of concrete channels and plastic piping to get water to their crops. Commercial logic forbids the alternative.

“if your neighbour doesn’t flood-water, then you’re fucked, and your tree will die”

Another local resident, Jo, adds that a generational crisis is fuelling the demise of the acequias. Younger people in the Yegen area prefer to move to the cities for work, rather than taking charge of family farms. When that land is sold, it’s usually amalgamated into the larger commercial farms.

Part of the problem here is a ‘knowledge drain’: older Yegenites who understand the holistic logic behind the acequias are retiring or dying and, unfortunately, taking their knowledge with them.

Jo was formerly involved with a local association that seeks to recover and support the ancient chestnut trees growing in Mecina-Bombarón, the next village along from Yegen. He tells me that chestnut trees traditionally sprang up along the sides of the acequias, thriving off that very same inefficiency.


Capileira, Sierra Nevada An old dry chestnut tree on the hill outside town

The fruit of those chestnut trees remain an important cultural staple for the people of Mecina-Bombarón, but in recent years those trees have been dying.


Cadiar, Spain View across the countryside with snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains to the rear. 

There is a tragic complex of issues at work behind the acequias’ slow, perhaps irreversible breakdown. But this is the crux. It is a system combining man-made and natural elements, that works with the grain of natural processes.

Its benefit—when working properly—to local people can be a matter of crippling economic urgency. But it relies on a holistic model, and its various moving parts are now caught in the whirlwind of global, as well as local climatic change.

The health of the Alpujarra’s ecosystem and of its farming communities has historically relied on heavy annual snowfalls. They in turn rely on precipitation coming in off the Mediterranean and hitting the tops of the Sierra Nevada. Desertification and temperature rises in the flat, coastal strip to the south of Yegen create a wall of hot air that pushes incoming precipitation higher up, missing the mountain tops entirely.

Now that precipitation falls as increasingly deadly flash floods in Germany and England.

But the acequias rely on a certain social interconnectedness as well. As Tom put it: “if your neighbour doesn’t flood-water, then you’re fucked, and your tree will die”. Using the acequias as they were designed to be used means accepting levels of inefficiency and waste that simply aren’t tolerable to modern commercial growers.

It also requires a self-sacrificing attitude towards your own profit margins, in the name of distant, and imprecise future benefits to your neighbours.

For Felix, restoring the acequias and flood-watering his land is a “dream”. Sadly, it may be too late to see that dream realised.




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