Spain’s olive oil producers have been devastated by the worst drought ever

The province of Jaén produces half of all Spanish oil

Francisco Elvira picks his way through his burnt olive grove, stopping to inspect the overdue fruit on nearly bare trees.

“Look at them,” he says desperately. “They should be bursting with olives now, close to harvest. But they are empty. And this is the crop that will produce the oil in the supermarkets next year.”

The fertile plains full of olive trees that stretch across southern Spain have made this country the world’s largest producer of olive oil, accounting for about half of the world’s supply.

But devastated by the worst drought on record, Spain’s so-called “green gold” is becoming increasingly scarce. This year’s yield is already down by about a third – and there’s still no sign of rain.

At Interóleo’s factory in Jaén, a province that produces half of Spain’s oil, pumps pump it into glass and plastic bottles, which pass along a conveyor belt to be labeled “Product of Spain.”

But the factory, which exports to countries including the UK, has seen production fall and prices soar, exacerbating the global food crisis.

Juan Gadeo

Juan Gadeo believes that this vital sector for Spain is in danger

“Buyers are already paying a third more than last year – but the drought will increase it even more,” says Juan Gadeo, head of the cooperative, who believes this vital sector for Spain is now at risk.

“With the recession, we may have to lay off some workers. There is a feeling of depression and uncertainty. Another year like this would be a total disaster.”

The picture is similar in the agricultural sector, with recent research finding that parts of the Iberian Peninsula are the driest in 1,200 years.

Spanish farmers have been planting more sunflowers since the start of the year in an attempt to compensate for the loss of sunflower oil from Ukraine – the world’s biggest producer, where war has led to a sharp drop in production.

But a sun-loving flower also needs the blessing of rain – and there is none, leading to a mass of shriveled crops that produce neither seed nor oil.

Isabel Villegas

Sunflower farmers like Isabel Villegas are struggling

As she rips dead sunflowers from her parched fields, Isabel Villegas wonders if she should try again.

“If it doesn’t rain by the end of the year, there’s no point in planting more,” he says. “That would be like throwing money at the land without a crop. And there’s no rain in the forecast right now.”

A recent report by the Global Drought Observatory concluded that Europe is experiencing its worst drought in 500 years.

Several countries across the continent are battling wildfires and heatwaves, with Spain particularly hard hit. More than 270,000 hectares have burned here this year, according to the European Forest Fire Information System.

Extreme heat and a lack of rainfall have led to a dramatic drop in the levels of Spain’s natural water reserves. The Vinuela reservoir near Malaga is just over 10% of capacity.

Elsewhere, medieval seaside villages, long buried under rivers, have been exposed as the water evaporates.

The Spanish government is now expanding desalination plants and building new ones, harnessing the ocean to ease water shortages.

At Campo de Dalias, next to the beach town of Almeria, we were led down to the cave where the sea water is channeled.

The salt from one half is extracted to produce clean water, while the other half absorbs the added salt and is then pumped back into the ocean, where it causes no environmental damage.

The plant produces 90,000 cubic meters of clean water every day, but has been ordered to increase to around 130,000 cubic meters within four years.

Around the facility, fields are littered with plastic sheets, which act as greenhouses for the fruits and vegetables growing underneath.

Half of the water produced at the desalination plant is used to irrigate crops here. Spain produces more fruit and vegetables than any other country in the European Union.

That, some scientists say, is part of the problem — that in an era of acute water scarcity, this country can no longer afford to be “the garden of Europe,” as it is often called.

Julia Martinez

Julia Martinez believes the country’s current water management model is unsustainable

“The total area of ​​irrigated land in Spain has increased in recent decades, both legally and illegally,” says Julia Martinez, from the New Water Culture Foundation.

He believes the country’s current water management model is unsustainable.

“Irrigated land consumes 85% of all water resources. With the remaining 15% it is not possible to meet all the remaining water demands, some of which have higher priorities.

Unless we change the balance, we cannot improve the condition of our rivers or adapt to climate change.”

Cracked ground, dried up rivers, withered crops: Spain’s rich land is being impoverished by a man-made climate emergency. On our planet and in our pockets, its cost is becoming more and more impressive.

And in the beautiful but parched plains of Andalucía, there is still no forecast for rain.

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