‘It’s not normal in the 21st century’: How dozens of villages in Spain struggle for drinking water

Less than two hours from Madrid, 76-year-old Francisca Benítez has to brush her teeth every night with bottled water because her village has no supply of drinking water.

'It's not normal in the 21st century': How dozens of villages in Spain struggle for drinking water
An elderly man carries a wheelbarrow full bottles of mineral water. Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP

In Lastras de Cuéllar in the central Castilla y León region, nitrates and arsenic have made the water undrinkable for the village’s residents, who number 350 in winter and nearly 1,000 in summer.

And across the country, dozens of villages are suffering the same fate because groundwater resources are at risk from agricultural pollution, a lack of water quality controls and drought.

Every Monday, the villagers walk to the main square in Lastras to buy multipacks of mineral water in 1.5 litre bottles, sold at a discounted price, which some take away in wheelbarrows.

Alejandro Martín, 17, is there to help his 95-year-old grandfather bring home the precious resource which is then poured into a pan so they can prepare coffee.

Outside, clusters of empty plastic bottles dangle from the balconies alongside banners demanding access to drinking water.

“This is not normal in the 21st century!” protests Mercedes Rodríguez, 41, who belongs to a local residents association.

Mayor Andrés García also points to the “lack of (public) funding” which has slowed down a project to ensure drinking water supplies by the end of the year.

In Castilla y León alone, 63 municipalities were without running water in March, according to the region’s main television station.

National figures are not available.

According to the health ministry, a 2019 study of national water resources found that 67,050 samples — some taken from the same place on different dates — were undrinkable.

People carry bottles of mineral water ihome n Lastras de Cuéllar, where nitrates and arsenic have made the water undrinkable. Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP

Nitrates and manure

Nitrate levels are a cause for concern, with nearly three out of 10 — 28 percent — of Spain’s groundwater monitoring stations registering a concentration close to or above the potability threshold.

Fully 22 percent of Spain’s overall surface area — which covers 506,000 square kilometres (195,000 square miles) — is exposed to nitrate pollution due to the nature of the soil or through agricultural activities, the environment ministry says.

And many are increasingly blaming agricultural pollution for the water crisis.

Lierta, a tiny village in the northeastern Aragón region, has been deprived of drinking water since 2018 because of nitrate pollution and residents are currently fighting plans to set up a new farm for 3,000 pigs.

Under a scorching sun, a lone dog can be seen drinking from a fountain in a landscape dominated by vast golden wheatfields that are dotted with pig farms.

In this area, there are already “close to 20,000 pigs and just 50 villagers”, says 68-year-old Bernard Más, a member of the residents’ association that has just managed to get the farm project suspended for a year.

In a country where pork products reign supreme, “intensive livestock farming and huge macro farms are a real problem” for local water quality due to the pollution from manure, says Luis Babiano, head of the Spanish Association of Public Water Supply and Sanitation Operators (AEOPAS).

But excess nitrates in water sources are mainly the result of “fertiliser use in agricultural activity” which is “the main problem” in the countryside, an environment ministry report found late last year.

‘Without water, we’ll disappear’

“In rural areas, water resource management is lacking and residents of some small settlements may be drinking non-potable water without knowing it,” the report said.

And such concerns have even reached Brussels with the European Commission last year issuing an ultimatum, warning Spain to improve its water quality control or face heavy fines.

In the long term, drought could also jeopardise the quality of Spain’s water resources, especially as the impact of climate change gathers pace.

If the quantity of water decreases but the level of harmful substances does not, proportionally it means the level of such pollutants in Spain’s water resources increases, explains Babiano.

In Lastras, Rodríguez fears that the water shortage could spell the end of their little community.

“A village that doesn’t have water is destined to disappear. Who is going to come and live in a village where they don’t have tap water?” she wonders.

“Who is ever going to set up a business here?”

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Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.


Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 


Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.


Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.


The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.