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WEATHER

In Pictures: Spain’s flood-devastated towns taken on massive clean-up

Spanish authorities and communities are facing a huge clean-up mission after flash floods provoked by intense rain washed away cars, filled homes with mud and knocked out power in many areas of the country.

In Pictures: Spain's flood-devastated towns taken on massive clean-up
Residents clean a street in Cobisa, Toledo province, after a flash flood destroyed much of their homes and belongings on Wednesday. Photo: Oscar del Pozo/AFP

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said emergency services were “working tirelessly” to protect people and restore “normality” to places affected by flooding “as soon as possible”.

One of the worst-hit areas was Alcanar, a town 200 kilometres (160 miles) south of Barcelona, where huge torrents of fast-moving water surged through the streets, sweeping away everything in its path.

Cars were dragged down to the seashore in Alcanar as huge torrents of fast-moving water surged through the streets, sweeping away everything in its path. Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP

Firefighters and local residents used brooms and hoses on Thursday to clear the streets of mud, tree branches and other debris.

A bulldozer removes mud from the streets of Alcanar. Photo: Lluis Gené/AFP

“It seemed like the world was ending,” Alcanar mayor Joan Roig told radio Rac 1, adding the town was “devastated”.

Two Alcanar residents scrape up the mud that engulfed their homes during the flash flood. Photo: Lluis Gené/AFP

Regional authorities relocated 83 people into hotels or a local sports facility.

The storm knocked out power to 10,000 homes in the northeastern region of Catalonia but as of Thursday only 200 residences lacked electricity, a spokesman for power firm Endesa said.

Heavy rain also fell in Spain’s northern Navarra region and in Madrid, forcing the closure on Wednesday of several metro stations due to flooding.

The Toledo province municipalities of Cobisa, Argés and Polán also bore the brunt of the torrential rain in Spain this week, where the force of the floods knocked down the wall of one local who shouted “Help!” desperately as a wave of mud and debris approached his home. 

Emergency services rescued several people from cars that were caught in rising waters but no fatalities were reported.

Destroyed furniture belonging to Cobisa neighbours among the rubble and debris left behind by the floods. Photo: Oscar del Pozo/AFP

Much of central and northern Spain, along with the Balearic Islands, remained on alert for storms on Thursday, according to the national weather office, Aemet.

The Murcia town of Aguilas was among the most affected by the floods on Thursday, having already experienced similarly destructive weather in March 2021. 

The heavy rain that’s caused chaos throughout much of Spain over the past days is expected to mostly subside on Friday. 

Debris and mud cover a street in Cobisa. Photo: Oscar del Pozo/AFP

Torrential rains are becoming ever more frequent in Spain, with flooding causing seven deaths in the southeast in September 2019, while another storm left 13 dead in the Balearic island of Mallorca a year earlier.

Residents clean a street in Cobisa. Photo: Oscar del Pozo/AFP

Experts say global warming has increased the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere, making episodes of intense rainful more likely to happen, raising the risk of flooding.

WATCH: Devastating floods and torrential rain hit much of Spain

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MONEY

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.

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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.

Santander

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.

BBVA

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.

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