Parched Spanish Coast Taps Sea Water for Growth

The last underdeveloped part of Spain's Mediterranean coast is disappearing in an onslaught of hotels and retirement homes. But the coast of Almeria is semi-desert, with the water for development coming from a de-salinization plants.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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Today in Climate Connections, NPR's yearlong series with National Geographic, we look at the rapid construction on Spain's Mediterranean coast. In the last few decades, its once pristine beaches have become the sites of high-rise hotels and blocks of condos. Environmentalists say the development upsets the ecological balance, and they're especially alarmed by construction in arid regions.

Jerome Socolovsky went to the coastal province of Almeria and sent this report.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: As you drive through the desert on the way to the coast of Almeria, a wall of concrete begins to rise on the horizon. These are the new developments of hotels and condos that have sprung up along the Mediterranean shore.

Mr. PHILLIP BOWERS(ph) (Developer, Almeria, Spain): This is a three-bed, two-bath ground-floor apartment. Come on in.

SOCOLOVSKY: Developer Phillip Bowers shows a condo in a sprawling development here in the desert town of Vera. The cookie-cutter row homes resembled cortijos or Andalucian farmhouses. Whitewashed walls glint in the sunshine. In the backyards, private Jacuzzis and swimming pools are being built, even though there are also large communal pools.

Mr. BOWERS: This place will have more swimming pools (unintelligible) with because we have 12 to 14 days of rain a year. This province of Almeria, we're self-sufficient (unintelligible) waters (unintelligible) desalination.

SOCOLOVSKY: Only a decade ago, Almeria's arid climate didn't allow the seemingly endless skyline of hotels and apartments that have overtaken other parts of the Mediterranean coast.

But a few years ago, under pressure from farmers, the government built seawater desalination plants that made inland Almeria Europe's tomato garden. Those desalination plants, powered by burning fossil fuels, are now turning the coastline of Almeria into one big construction site.

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Immigrants from Africa are building retirement villages with lush gardens that are being sold to another kind of immigrant - Britons, Germans and Scandinavians fleeing their dark and dreary winters.

Arturo Gonzalo Aizpiri is the secretary general for climate change at the Environment Ministry in Madrid.

Secretary General ARTURO GONZALO AIZPIRI (Pollution Prevention and Climate Change, Ministry of Environment, Spain): (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Yes, I won't deny it. We are greatly concerned by the excessive urban development on our coast, he says. Gonzalo says strict environmental regulations will apply to future developments and a special prosecutor has been appointed to enforce them. But the pressure of development is relentless. Tourism is one of Spain's biggest industries, and this part of the Mediterranean coast is booming.

Ecologists say the coastal development is putting a strain on the region's delicate semi-arid environment. They say there are already signs that plant species are being harmed and that the ecological balance has been disrupted with unforeseen consequences, like a series of jellyfish invasions along the beaches.

Martin Bervel(ph) of the Spanish group Ecologists In Action says that if Europeans are going to preach to the rest of the world about climate change, they should stop their vacation real-estate buying frenzy.

Mr. MARTIN BERVEL (Ecologists In Action): (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: They're like predatory real estate speculators, going from one place to another, he says. Now it's the Spanish Mediterranean shore. In a year, it will be Croatia, then Morocco in North Africa. At least for now, Spain is still the place to go.

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SOCOLOVSKY: Especially if you want year-round golf. Hundreds of new golf courses have opened in southern Spain in the last decade. Here in Almeria, developers are planning dozens more. But lately, the authorities have become more stringent with permits.

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SOCOLOVSKY: The Desert Springs Golf Club, up the road from Vera, is one of the few that has gotten a passing grade from environmentalists. The fairways and the greens are green, of course, but at least, they're irrigated with recycled water.

Freddy Beans(ph) has owned one of the condos here since Desert Springs opened seven years ago. He enthusiastically points out the ducks and sparrows around the pond by the 14th hole. As he speaks, bulldozers are clearing more lands on the edge of the golf course.

Mr. FREDDY BEANS (Businessman): We have been able to provide a fantastic area for wildlife to come to that would not have been here in the past. We don't use any insecticides as an environmental operation. This is like the Garden of Eden.

SOCOLOVSKY: That may be an overstatement. The golf course, itself, is lush in green, but the surrounding landscape is mostly aloe and cactus. Many scientists say Almeria will only get hotter and dryer as a result of global warming. So Europeans looking for a golfing paradise on the Spanish Mediterranean coast may soon have to start concentrating on their bunker shots.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Almeria Province, Spain.

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