Water, water, dónde estas?

Small villages in the Castilla y Leon province in the middle of Spain have fought and are still fighting there own battles against the effects of climate change. Over the past years many villages in the region have struggled with a lack of water and drought during the hot summers. “You don’t realize the importance of having something as vital like water, until you don’t have it”, says Juan Diez Sanz, former mayor of the water struggling village of Cerezo de Abajo.

By Elke Willemsen

With the warming of the earth the past decades, more big and smaller cities throughout Europe are starting to notice the effects of climate changes. In the south corner of Europe lies the big country of Spain; a country which has a lot of sunshine and warm temperatures during the year.

The country is currently caught in the aftermath of the financial crisis and is dealing with a high number of unemployment. With prices for electricity and water on the rise, more and more inhabitants are starting to have troubles paying their utility bills resulting in energy poverty in -for example the south and even in the capital Madrid.

But where big cities are struggling with higher prices, in the region of Segovia in the province of Castilla y Leon small villages are more focused on retaining water. Over the past decades the villages have undergone a huge change and made investments when it comes to improving the water infrastructure. Now, anno 2010, most villages finally seem to be water self sufficient. In Castillejo de Mesleon they have enough water reverses to sustain twice its population in the summer. In Cerezo de Abajo they hope to have enough water for the next upcoming 30 years, but this is still unsure.


Mountain ‘El Puerto de la Quesera’ in Segovia. In the back you see the village of Riaza. In the front the waterdyke. @ Photo by Elke Willemsen

Around Madrid -and throughout all of Spain- there are many small villages. In the province of Segovia in the south of Castilla y Leon, lie the small villages of Castillejo de Mesleon, Riaza and Cerezo de Abajo.

Even though they are close to the mountains of Somosierra, and there are several rivers and small streams coming from these mountains, the villages have to deal with a lot of drought. In the beginning of the summer the rivers in the area dry up, which back in the days resulted in a lack of water for the inhabitants.

The area of Segovia is characterized of contrasts. It covers 7000 km2 and rises to 2500 metres above sea level in its mountain areas and drops to 750 metres in its lowest areas. Segovia has a stable climate, which is very typical for Castilla y Leon. The mountainous regions of the northeast, east, and south have a typical Mediterranean mountain climate, with little rain, hot summers, and cold winters.

Success story: Castillejo de Mesleon

The village Castillejo de Mesleon. @ Photo by Elke Willemsen

“When I became the mayor, all there was in the village was a small water basin where inhabitants needed to take water out with buckets”, says Ricardo Pascal Díez.
For the past fifty years the now 80 year old Díez has been the mayor of Castillejo de Mesleon. A small village counting six streets and 170 inhabitants, located 120 kilometres north of Spain’s capital Madrid.

The village used to get water from the river but because of hot summers and irregular rain bringing muddy water from the mountain, this water became unusable.

Expanding water infrastructure

During the decades Díez has seen the water infrastructure grow from inhabitants getting water with buckets to the construction of water pumps. “In ’63 when I became the mayor the first thing I did in my job was focussing on improving the quality and quantity of water”, Díez says.

First water depot in Castillejo. @ Photo by Elke Willemsen

For the water of the depot (see picture) wasn’t enough, the mayor started to look for other opportunities to provide the village with enough water. After some perforations close to the fountain depot a pump was build which could send water to a reservoir on the other side of town. There the water could be treated and distributed to the houses in the village.

Daniel Lobo Velasco (58) has lived his whole life in Castillejo and is responsible for maintaining the village. He does so by gardening, sweeping the streets and up until two years ago analysing and controlling the water. “We literally went from not having any water in the summers to having no problems anymore now”, Velasco says.

Pumping pumps

The village now had one pump, but soon noticed that one simply wasn’t enough. To secure enough water throughout the year another pump was built which sucked water out of the ground and send it to the reservoir. “Only, still in extreme years of warm summers problems rose”, Díez says. “Therefore another emergency pump was built close to the river”, he adds.

This pump has four functions: providing drinking water to tap, sending water to make the river flow in summers so it doesn’t dry up, a point where water could be tapped in case of fires and last but not least the pump functions as an emergency pump in case the other pumps stop working. In that case water can still be send to the reservoir.

According to Velasco, this village was one of the firsts in the region to avoid water problems. “Now we are able to supply water for the double of inhabitants we have in the summer, which is for around 1000 visitors every summer”, says Velasco.

Where a quick and swift reaction from the mayor made sure the village of Mesleon is cleared of water problems, ten kilometres south the village of Cerezo de Abajo didn’t react as fast as they could have. There the fact if there will be enough water for the upcoming decades, still has a big question mark.


The struggling town of Cerezo de Abajo

‘Cerezo de Abajo without water’ says the banner on the picture in the ABC newspaper of august 1994. @ Photo by Elke Willemsen

“There was water, but there wasn’t”, he says with a serious look on his face.
With this the former mayor of Cerezo de Abajo, Juan Diez Sanz, means that there was water in the area but because of a lack of infrastructure the water couldn’t make its way to the 180 villagers.

The small village of Cerezo de Abajo, 101 kilometres north of Madrid, has a long history of water shortage. The 62 year old Juan Diez Sanz was the mayor of Cerezo during its most critical water shortage years in the 90’s and early 21st century.

“The climate change definitely effected the water problems”, Sanz says. Now that because of climate change the traditional sources in the area are worn out, better infrastructures were required in order to have avoided all the water problems the village has suffered.

Slow evolution

(See timeline at bodem page)

Back in the 1960’s water for the village came from the mountains. Not until ten years later the idea arose that alternatives had to be found in order to also have water during summers.

Mid sixties the village started to feel the cycle of drought, with no rain and hot dry summers. But because of a lack of action the village kept holding on to the same -but now outdated- methods to get water in the 70’s.

In the 80’s the supply of water for the village came from trucks bringing water tanks, coming from a private owner who had water on his land. “This meant high prices, low quality”, says Sanz..
“Not to imagine it was horrible for the people to see the rusted tanks coming, with water splashing out over the sides”, he adds. The water from these tanks was not controlled which caused infections such as diarrhea and gastroenteritis. “That’s why people started buying more expensive mineral water in shops”, the former mayor explains.

According to Sanz, around this time the politicians in Castilla y Leon finally woke up and took a look at the situation. After some studies they decided to built a water dyke to supply the village in its water need. “They didn’t take it very serious, since they forgot to do an environmental as well as a geologic study”, Sanz says. This took some extra years into finishing the studies. “After all the studies were done the outcome was that they couldn’t make a water dyke because there was no more money”, Sanz explains.

This small river near Cerezo is completely dried up in the summer. @ Photo by Elke Willemsen

An angry mob

The people of Cerezo could only watch and see how they had no water and that the search for water was stagnant.
Because of the slow process of the studies time was wasted and it were the villagers paying the consequences.  “We had to start all over again after this failure, so we started looking for new solutions”, says Sanz.
In the meantime the inhabitants became restless and looked for publicity by addressing newspapers and protesting on the streets: they tried to show the problems that were going on in their village (see picture).

The 90’s were featured with restrictions on the use of water: after lunch no water until night, or no water in nights but only in mornings. Then in the summer of 93’s Cerezo complete ran out of water and became completely dependent on the water tanks, brought by trucks. This lasted up until 2004.

The continuing search for water

Juan Sanz next to the only waterbasin in Cerezo de Abajo. @ Photo by Elke Willemsen

For finding new solutions Cerezo looked to other villages in the area and copied what they did: digging water from underground. Study revealed water in Mansilla, an even smaller village 2.5 kilometres from Cerezo. There a pump was made which now still is the first and only pump they have.

Now recently Cerezo is able to expand and build more houses, but with restrictions.
With the current pump Cerezo can keep up with the actual demand of water for the upcoming thirty years. “But we’re not sure of that since the village is growing and growing”, Sanz adds.

A lot of Spanish families go back to their home villages in the summer, resulting in an increase of four times as more inhabitants and visitors in Cerezo as usual. So the search for more water for Cerezo hasn’t come to a complete stop. “Water is something you should have whenever you need it”, thus Sanz.


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