About 25km east of Tabernas is another “protected” Natural Area, the Karst en Yesos de Sorbas. Founded in 1989 this 2,500ha reserve is one of the best examples in the world of a karst landscape comprised of gypsum ( Yeso). The same harsh climatic conditions as Tabernas ensure a limited variety of flora can manage here.
Its gypsophyte flora- plants that are gypsum tolerant- are rare or endangered and many are endemic.
These species are under threat, however, mainly from mining activity, which, although prohibited within the protected area, is the economic mainstay of Sorbas. There are three big quarries, extracting 5million cubic tonnes a year for cement and plaster across the world, including Los Yesares, Europe’s largest gypsum quarry. The multi faceted crystal in the rock constantly flashes in the sun as you walk through the landscape while underneath your feet over 1000 caves and a multitude of interconnecting passages create a labyrinth through the limestone.
After a short exploration of the Cuevas de Sorbas, which has tentacles stretching out over 50 km, we left the town clinging precariously to a cliff and headed off to a place dear to our hearts, Los Molinos de Rio Aguas.
Another prolonged stop on our road trip nearly 30 years ago Los Molinos has stayed constant in our diminishing memories. A derelict village, hollowed out by abandonment, in the process of rebirth. An English environmental charity, Sunseeds, had established itself here to work on desertification and alternative, sustainable technologies. In its wake volunteers were settling, rebuilding off grid ruins in the village above the oasis created by the spring of the Rio Aguas. A beautiful place with lovely people doing good work.
3 decades on we saw how much had grown and been restored as we followed the signs of a PR walking route down through the houses and gardens to the fecund waterway below.
The emerging waters of the Rio Aguas once powered the derelict water mills, producing flour and oil from the crops irrigated by the system of acequitas , water channels, still working now to feed the gardens. Thick stands of bamboo like cana thrive in the damp surrounds, used for a multitude of tasks. Cool pools among the sparkling boulders give blessed relief from the summer sun and are home to endangered turtles. We followed the path passed a little house blended to the rock to the birthplace of the river, and then on up to the top of the Rio Aguas gorge.
The huge areas of dry fields and terraces, dying trees and abandoned fincas around us told a sorry tale of climate change and hardship but a man we coincidentally ran into walking his 8 dogs through the hills told us a sadder one.
David Dene is a fellow we helped 30 years ago to clear paths and build walls as he started a life in Los Molinos and it was good to know he was still there. Over the years he has become more of a prominent environmental activist, fighting at local, European and United Nations levels on a number of issues. He told us of the irreparable damage being done to the Rio Aguas spring and its downstream ecosystem by the massive amount of water extraction from the aquifer that feeds it. The fossil waters laid down 1000’s of years ago are being sucked out of the ground at a rate of 200 times what is available to irrigate rapidly expanding ” super intensive” olive plantations between Tabernas and Sorbas.
First established in 2007, over the next 10 years the area planted multiplied 20 fold and its estimated that now 5000 ha are under super intensive production. The olives are grown in continuous dwarf hedges that are mechanically planted, pruned and harvested at a density of 1,500 to 2,000 trees per ha as opposed to the traditional rain fed terraces density of 60-100 trees per ha.
With each tree being fed 10l of water and chemicals to maximise cropping the aquifer is being drained of approx 40 million litres a day. If it takes 50 years for a drop of rain falling in Tabernas to make its way underground to the Rio Aguas spring in Los Molinos you can imaging the effect of this ” absolute unsustainability”. Water has run from the ground there at a average rate of 40 l per second for generations, now it’s down to 7 l per second.
” An agricultural bubble with virtual water has been created”
The economics are shortsighted in the extreme. It costs about €6000 a hectare to set up a super intensive plantation. Cropping begins after only 3 years and they reckon it pays for itself in 6. They are even grubbing up irrigated groves to plant super intensive, super water hungry industrial estates of olives. It’s calculated that the aquifer will be dry in 10 years. They are now drilling 400m looking for water in a headlong rush to desertification.
The farmers/ multinationals often refer to the water saving technological advances of the drip feed systems they employ. Unfortunately the Jevon Paradox states ” As technological improvement increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, an increase in consumption of that resource is more likely than a decrease”.
The result, for David Dene and the rest of the people of Los Molinos and surrounding villages, is that in 5 or 6 years the spring will stop flowing, Europe’s only true Oasis will dry up and ecocide will occur.
Still, David and other campaigners fight on and one can only hope that sense, and law, will prevail and the madness , driven by our wanton consumption, will cease.
Bidding farewell we carried on across the esparto covered landscape, crossing the Barranco del Tesoro on the Puente La Mora. On the old track to Sorbas the origins of the bridge are unknown but it was written about in 1573. There were plenty of deep karstic sink holes about and we needed to watch our step.
After following the cliff tops for awhile we started to descend into the barranco through an abandoned hamlet that quietly crumbles whilst life hurtles past on the motorway constructed above.
We were back at the Rio Aguas and now we looked apprehensively at the tranquil turtle pools before following the waters upstream to Los Molinos and the camper.
We moved a little north east to park up at another deserted village where we started our last hike of the trip in the morning.
Marchalico- Vinicas was left alone in 1969 when its last inhabitants finally followed those that had been leaving for a decade. The gypsum mines no longer needed the manual labour, the water was too chalky to drink and it was generally too tough to make it on your own up there. Nowadays the motorway roars at the foot of the hill but then there were no roads. The nearest doctor was a 4 hr donkey ride away over unmade tracks.
Our path wound through the couple of dozen buildings, the ghosts of hard lives embedded in the twinkling gypsum they were constructed with and from.
At the top of town was a fine bread oven and above that an era, or threshing circle, used to process the grains they could grow here in the days of rain. Wheat, barley, carob, almond and olive on the terraces, more fruit and veg in the gardens below. And sheep and goats shepherded from place to place.
As we continued up and across the high plateau of esparto grass, stopping to look at the results of events on a geological timescale- the gypsum blisters or tumuli and sink holes colonised by fig- I mused on lives becoming unsustainable in a far shorter period. Marchalico- Vinicas was only 100 years old when it could no longer support it’s inhabitants.
After weeks of walking through vast areas of irrigated crops across a very dry Spain , and learning the fate of the Rio Aguas , it is no surprise to read that climate change / human activity has led desertification to seriously effect a third of Spain. I fear the symbolism of the abandoned movie sets could be profound.