Water threads Part I: Emergency environmentalism

In his Christmas speech in 1969, Francisco Franco recited his famous phrase: "everything has been tied and well tied". That same year, his administration began the construction of the water transfer from the Tagus to the Segura river basin, which like a great thread sewed and tied both territories. By 1981, the waters of the Alcarria were flowing towards the region of Murcia, in the southeastern coast of Spain, weaving disparate destinies for its inhabitants.

Source: Confederación Hidrográfica del Segura
Change as the norm

Journey to the Alcarria, 1948. Camilo José Cela

Located in the heart of the province of Guadalajara, the Buendía reservoir was built in 1958 on the path of the Guadiela river. Residents of the riverside towns tell me that in medieval times that same river served as a border, separating Arab territories to the south and Christian ones to the north. It also marked different perspectives on water as a resource and how to manage it. Today, both lands are separated by a reservoir containing just 20% of its capacity. The river is so low, there are points where it could be crossed by foot, and its bare banks reveal ancient farmlands covered in trash.

In early March, the city council of Alcocer, one of the closest towns to the reservoir, sought to address the trash problem by asking the public to join in a clean-up effort. Carlos Castro, deputy mayor of Alcocer, cracks jokes about all the rusty objects he finds. "This one is from the Romans. This one, the Moors left", he'll quip. History is certainly very important to the locals.

With his long trash picking stick Carlos points to some nearby pine trees. This, he says, is how high water in the reservoir once rose. In those times, it flooded the best farmlands and also some towns, the ruins of which are now easy to see. He says the reservoir brought the region to life with fishing, sailing, and weekend tourism.

His eyes light up as he remembers how in 1979 he could cross the reservoir for free on a ferry, one that became set for the movie "El Perro". "It was like a small aircraft carrier", he says. I asked him for a few photos from that time. He sent me a lot, including images of the ferry, the Church of Alcocer and of the towns that the reservoir flooded...

Source: Carlos Castro Écija

... even among the images he sent, a photograph of a historical politician sneaked in.

But the economic boom provided by the reservoir’s recreational activities dried up along with the water transfers to the Segura basin, located in the mediterranean region also known as Levante. And although the agricultural activity also decreased with the loss of the most fertile lands of the Guadiela, livestock farming continues to be an economic driver, as well as a testament to the changing landscape.

The inhabitants of Alcocer who went to collect trash do not waste time in regrets. Life goes on. They may have an empty reservoir, where they can no longer fish or boat, but they want a clean one.

Messages from the earth

Borja Castro, Mayor of Alcocer

A gray sky makes me suspect that it will rain, but they assure me that it won't. The trash collection wraps up and two local television journalists conduct an with interview Borja Castro, Mayor of Alcocer. Borja lives in Madrid, which may be a strange fact for those who are not aware of the migrations that the successive changes of the reservoir provoked. Speaking to the journalists before a bridge that now sits high above the low reservoir waters, Borja says residents are trying to care for an ecosystem with immeasurable cultural and aesthetic value for his community.

Borja says that he has a plan to re-promote the development of the riverside municipalities to the reservoirs, grouped in the Association of Riverside Municipalities of the Entrepeñas and Buendía Reservoirs. This association signed an Agreement with the Ministry of the Environment through the Tagus Hydrographic Confederation and the Castilla-La Mancha Community Board. In total, says Borja, "33 million euros" were earmarked for the development of the riverside municipalities to the reservoirs, but "they are not mobilized because there is no clarity on the responsibilities", he explains. They are afraid that the Agreement will be dissolved due to the lack of activity on the part of the collaborators, and their plan is to turn to the Secretary of State for that Agreement "to be implemented as soon as possible."

The residents who participated in the trash collection are worried too. They’ve made environmentalism their flag, and they understand that this action is one of the best ways they have to defend their land.

“A deteriorated landscape in an environmental crisis. This is the economic development the reservoir has left us," they say. They also say that the broader population seems willing to help through campaigns to reforest and reduce plastics.

The session concludes with the event’s 19 trash collectors listing off what trash they found: plastic and metal objects and the remains of old agricultural machines. Borja regrets that just a few people have come and says that in the Segura basin "they are much smarter". According to him, they have very clear objectives in what refers to their development. For him the situation of environmental degradation in Alcocer and other towns in the Alcarria has a clear root cause: the "greed" of the private interests in the Levante, who demand water that they "don't really need". Borja and the others agree to say that this is leaving them in an ecological and social situation that has driven people out from their homes. This is how they transmit their message of firm opposition to the water transfers from the Tagus to the Segura.

We conclude the daylong trash collection event with an aperitif at the edge of the reservoir. We toast to our hard work, but it’s a solemn one, for we know the waters unraveling through the channel of the transfer are moving south, looking for new land to sew.

Text and photos: Javier Rodríguez Ros

© Javier Rodríguez Ros 2020

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Javier Rodríguez Ros


Javier Rodríguez Ros