From popular avocado to desertification in southern Spain

by Lorraine Williamson
avocado and water shortages

MALAGA – From June-September, farmers of subtropical crops in La Axarquía region look anxiously from their land to the sky. The warm microclimate allows their tropical fruits, such as the avocado to thrive. However, it also punishes them with a chronic lack of precipitation. 

Poorly organised irrigation and climate change are leading to severe water scarcity in La Axarquía region, east of Málaga. Spanish newspaper El Mundo writes water resources are no longer sufficient for the crops that were planned by the government 32 years ago.  

Add to this the vastly reduced water resources as a result of the production of more subtropical crops that require irrigation. Over three decades ago, less thirsty crops such as olives and almonds grew in this southern Spanish region. However, now avocado and mango plantations dominate the scene. 

The transformation took place in 1989 with the adoption of the Guaro Plan. This connected 8,900 hectares of land in the Axarquía to irrigation. Subtropical fruits are much more productive, and this has therefore led to the accelerated development of avocado and mango cultivation. However, the region is currently facing drought. 

‘Severe water shortage’ 

La Axarquía has a “serious water shortage”. Water sources are insufficient to meet the requirements of the hydrological plans. The drought decree, approved on June 15, 2021, states guaranteed irrigation is only 50% in the first year of drought. And 25% in the second. Therefore, this is a major concern for farmers. “The situation is very serious. If you don’t have water in August and September, you have to say goodbye to the avocados. And in the worst case, the trees,” said José Ricardo Campos, president of the Central Users Council South of Guaro.  

Subtropical orchard 

Water is scarce in La Axarquía. The rivers are empty, and the level of the reservoir La Viñuela is at just over 25% of its capacity. That is the lowest level in the last ten years.  The reservoir was built in 1986 to transform La Axarquía into the subtropical orchard it is today. 

Rainfall has decreased over the past three years, but to a lesser extent than the dammed-up water. Successive hydrological plans for the area also include La Axarquía provides for a continued increase in the surface area to be irrigated. And for an increase in water consumption in the region. This is despite the scarce water resources in the area, which are also decreasing due to climate change. More precisely, between 2015 and 2027, the irrigated area would increase by 7% and the water consumption by 23%. That is an additional 14.12 hm3 per year would be consumed in La Axarquía region. 

Water collapse threatens 

Ecologistas en Acción warns of a “water collapse” if the expansion of the area to be irrigated in the Axarquía is not stopped and the water supplied is not better controlled. “The government gives a water concession to the irrigation communities. But in the communities, there are many people who are not even legalized. That way water is given to people who shouldn’t have it and we consume more than necessary,” confirms Rafael Yus, president of the environmental group. The farmers, for their part, defend themselves by stating that they need less water because of the modernisation of irrigation. 

8 Rivers in poor condition 

A small part of the irrigation consumption comes from the rivers, which are naturally dry in the summer in this catchment area. However, some have now been permanently dry for years. The 2009-2015 hydrological plan reported that the area’s eight rivers were in poor condition due to insufficient flow due to irrigation abstraction. This is why there was already a warning about desertification. The Junta de Andalucía also classified the Axarquía as an area with “highly active” desertification processes. 

Cogesa Expats

In addition, pollution of agricultural origin from both groundwater and surface water is accelerating desertification. This is a conclusion from the report by consultancy Red2Red on the sustainability of the Andalusian Rural Development Program 2014-2020. 

‘First plant and only then ask for water’ 

For Iñaki Hormaza, CSIC researcher at the Institute of Subtropical and Mediterranean Horticulture, the solution to this critical situation is to limit the cultivation of avocados. And any other crop based on the available water and not the reverse: ‘plant first then ask for water’. “More hectares are being planted than can be irrigated with the available water”. 

High-quality subtropical products 

The first step for the subtropics The planting in the area, the Guaro Plan, ignored this. It identified the transformation to irrigated crops in the Axarquía as “national importance”, explaining that the “privileged” climate would allow the harvesting of “high quality” subtropical products. Outside the territorial delineation of the plan, the maximum number of hectares intended for subtropical crops has not been established. Thus, the final adjustment of the irrigable areas and thus that of the water quantities was left to the extent to which the land was exploited. 

Cultivation of subtropical fruits grown exponentially 

32 years later, the number of hectares devoted to the cultivation of subtropical fruits in the province has grown exponentially, as has its production. This increase is mainly due to the increase in avocado cultivation. The trend is clear, but it is difficult to know exactly how many hectares of avocado and other subtropical crops such as mango currently exist in the region and province of Málaga. 

Between 7,000 and 12,000 hectares of subtropical fruit 

According to data from the Yearbook of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food (MAPA), the number of hectares of avocado cultivation grew by 91%. The production also increased. In 2019, this reached 47,900 tons of avocado. An increase of 233% over 1989. 

However, environmentalists don’t believe these numbers. A topographical work, conducted by Ecologistas and Acción, estimated that the hectares for the cultivation of subtropical crops in 2017 were 12,989. An investigation by the Ministry of Agriculture determined that in the same year it involved 12,828 hectares. Both numbers are in stark contrast to the 7,247 hectares of subtropical crops (excluding mangoes) identified in the yearbook for the same year. 

Grow avocado at the expense of other crops 

Still, all statistics indicate that avocado production has exploded at the expense of other crops. This can only be seen if you are regularly in the region. The profitability of the avocado is the main driver of the increase, thanks to the high European demand. “The avocado is a great economic support for the farmer because it sells well,” says Belén Rodríguez, a farmer from the region. 

However, water scarcity is now starting to get in the way of this success. For this reason, some farmers choose to plant mixed crops to “avoid soil erosion” and “make the land retain more water,” Rodrídguez said. For the farmer, “a monoculture of just avocados has no long-term future because it depends on water that is not there”. 

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