Forest fires, heat-waves and the worst drought in over half a century are the key factors in a dramatic equation which sees Spain paying a heavy price for its notorious mismanagement of water resources. The Spanish Environment Minister, Cristina Narbona, has warned that the crisis could worsen with another dry year predicted for 2006. In an attempt to deal with the situation, rationing of drinking water has already begun and restrictions on watering of both public and private gardens are in place in nearly half of Spains 17 provinces. Swimming pools and fountains are being shut down as well.

The south is the hardest hit area, with a quarter of the nearly 1.6 billion agricultural losses being registered here and farm unions warn that their livestock are suffering serious dehydration, as are many species of wildlife in Spains national parks, including storks, flamingos and wild boar. The problems of the drought are being accentuated by water wastage and misuse with little recycling or conservation being undertaken. Agriculture consumes around 75 per cent of Spains available water and farmers often use flooding as a means of irrigating their fields and orchards.

Cheap water prices are also to blame, as is the boom in the building industry, which has seen the construction of 700,000 new homes in the last year in the water-starved south. The sinking of illegal wells and the creation of golf courses for new luxury resorts are just two elements in a complicated confluence of events which have rendered this years drought so serious.

$320 million has been earmarked for the creation of new desalination plants and emergency wells, as well as for water recycling programmes. However, water-related legislation is historically the province of local authorities, making the creation of a national water policy a crucial challenge for the Zapatero government.