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FIRE

Huge fire on Spain’s Costa del Sol declared ‘stabilised’

A huge fire in Málaga province which destroyed thousands of hectares of forest and forced authorities to evacuate 3,000 people from their homes was declared "stabilised" on Friday after an arduous two-day extinguishing operation.

Huge fire on Spain's Costa del Sol declared 'stabilised'
Smoke from the wildfire in Sierra Bermeja mountain range in Malaga as seen from Benahavís on June 9th 2022. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

The fire, which broke out on Wednesday afternoon in a dense forest in the nearby municipality of Pujerra in Sierra Bermeja – inland from the Costa del Sol towns of Estepona and Marbella – continued to rage throughout Thursday and the early hours of Friday.

Three firefighters suffered burns to 25 percent of their bodies, according to Andalusian president Juanma Moreno. His presidential councillor Elías Bendodo reported on Wednesday night that the fire was advancing at 30 metres per minute.

In the early hours of Thursday June 9th, authorities in the upmarket municipality of Benahavís, where 5,000 of its 8,000 residents are foreign (mostly British), decided to evacuate between 2,000 and 3,000 inhabitants as a precautionary measure.

Over a hundred more were also evacuated from the Marbella Club Golf, Montemayor and Benahavís Hills residential complexes, Júzcar and Pujerra.

A helicopter participating in the complex fire containment operation in Sierra Bermeja. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

On Thursday, the Sierra Bermeja fire formed a flammagenitus or fire cloud, a phenomenon which prevented helicopters from extinguishing the flames from above.

“A difficult night in Sierra Bermeja,” wrote Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Thursday on Twitter, thanking rescuers and firefighters for their work and expressing “solidarity with those residents affected” by the blaze.

By Thursday night, most Benahavís residents were allowed to return to their homes.

On Friday morning, authorities declared the fire to have been “stabilised”, but hundreds of workers are still trying to get the blaze completely under control.

According to the INFOCAforest fire authority, a fire is considered under control when the entire perimeter is surrounded by a strip of land without vegetation or with already-burnt vegetation.

Estimates suggest that at least 3,500 hectares of pine and chestnut forest have been lost.

Málaga province is also bracing for a heatwave that is expected to push temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the coming days.

Around 1,000 people, including 160 soldiers, have been deployed to help with the efforts to put out the flames.

The fire is believed to have originated at a farm that once belonged to Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, land on which 1,900 homes and a golf course are projected but which is now being used mainly as a private hunting reserve.

The same area was already affected in September 2021 by what turned out to be the most destructive fire last year in Spain, when flames devastated almost 10,000 hectares in eight Málaga municipalities.

One firefighter lost his life and 2,600 people were forced from their homes as some 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres) of land were lost over the seven days that the blaze lasted.

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ENVIRONMENT

Drought forces water use rethink in Spain

Faced with a historic drought and threatened by desertification, Spain is rethinking how it spends its water resources

Drought forces water use rethink in Spain

Faced with a historic drought and threatened by desertification, Spain is rethinking how it spends its water resources, which are used mainly to irrigate crops.

“We must be extremely careful and responsible instead of looking the other way,” Spain’s Minister for the Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera said recently, about the impact of the lack of rain.

Like France and Italy, Spain has been gripped by several extreme heatwaves this summer after an unusually dry winter.

That has left the country’s reservoirs at 40.4 percent of their capacity in August, 20 percentage points below the average over the last decade for this time of the year.

Officials have responded by limiting water use, especially in the southern region of Andalusia, which grows much of Europe’s fruits and vegetables.

Reservoir water levels in the region are particularly low, just 25 percent at most of their capacity.

“The situation is dramatic,” said University of Jaen hydrology professor Rosario Jimenez, adding both underground aquifers and surface bodies of water were running low.

The situation is especially worrying since it is part of a long-term trend linked to climate change, she added.Parts of Spain are the driest they have been in a thousand years due to an atmospheric high-pressure system driven by climate change, according to a study published last month in the journal, Nature Geoscience.

Greenpeace estimates that 75 percent of the country is susceptible to desertification.

‘Overexploitation’ 

Spain has built a vast network of dams to provide water for its farms and towns. During the 20th century, 1,200 large dams were built in the country, the highest number in Europe per capita.

This has allowed Spain to increase the amount of irrigated land it has from 900,000 hectares (2,224,000 acres) to 3,400,000 hectares, according to the ecological transition ministry’s website, which calls the country’s water management system “an example of success”.

But many experts say the system is now showing its limits.

The dams “had their use” but they have also encouraged the “overexploitation” of water and the decline in its quality by blocking the natural course of rivers, said Julio Barea, a water expert at Greenpeace Spain.

For the scientific council of the Rhone-Mediterranean Basin Committee, a French body which groups hydrology specialists, Spain is nearing the “physical limits” of its water management model.

Spain’s network of dams relies on sufficient rainfall to replenish its many reservoirs, it said.

But “the climate changes already under way, which will continue in the decades to come, will increase the risk of failures,” the body said in a recent report.

Experts say the way Spain uses water is also a major problem.”Consumption has not stopped increasing while water is becoming increasingly scarce. It’s an aberration,” said Barea.

‘Europe’s vegetable garden’

Spain is the second most visited country in the world and significant amounts of water are used in tourism infrastructure like swimming pools and golf courses.

But agriculture absorbs the bulk — over 80 percent — of the country’s water resources.

It is sometimes used to grow crops that are not suitable for a dry climate — such as strawberries or avocados — for export to other European countries. Spain’s use of irrigation “is irrational,” said Julia Martinez, biologist and director of the FNCA Water Conservation Foundation.

“We cannot be Europe’s vegetable garden” while “there are water shortages for the inhabitants,” she added.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s government adopted a strategic plan last month to adapt Spain’s water management system to “the impacts of global warming”.

It includes measures to promote water recycling and “efficient and rational” uses of resources. But specialists say that reforms remain timid, with many regions continuing to increase the amount of irrigated land.

“We need more drastic measures,” said Barea, who called for a restructuring of the agriculture system.

Martinez shares this view, saying Spain is currently the European nation “exerting the most pressure on its water resources.”

“Today there are decisions that no one wants to take. We can’t continue to blindly forge ahead,” she said.

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