General view of the Gorg Blau reservoir. | Archives

Miquel Mir is the soon to be ex-Balearic environment minister. Some politicians have short shelf lives because the electorate determines their sell-by dates. Others choose to depart and graze in quieter pastures away from the public gaze. So it is with Miquel Mir. He is to return to academe and to a professorship in the University of the Balearic Islands geography department, a faculty known for its not infrequent observations regarding Mallorca’s pastures - and tourism.

From the faculty has come, for instance, an advocacy of de-growth and of increased use of pastures for agrarian purposes. Academics can advocate, sure in the knowledge that it is not they who have to make decisions. For there are very serious decisions to be made, but which can be assisted by purposeful research by the university, and not just the geography department. Miquel Mir will doubtless hope that he can make a contribution, for he is acutely aware that the island’s geography includes a resource that sustains pastures, tourism and life in general, but which is a resource under constant stress - water.

Given recent statements by the minister, it may sound as if he is a bit of a rat leaving the sinking ship. Not at all, as there is ever less depth into which the ship can sink. Such is the current state of water resources that they stand at 54%, fourteen percentage points below where they were this time last year. In the specific case of the reservoirs, a capacity of some 50% is well off what it was in February 2022 - up to 90%.

The reservoirs, for public consumption, act as a kind of bellwether for the health or otherwise of the island’s water. This is because we can see them. What we can’t see is what lies below - the aquifers, the giant underground lakes that correspond to the units of water demand across Mallorca. In certain cases, aquifer capacity is below 40%, lower than was the case in September (and so towards the end of the tourism season). There are units of demand, the minister has pointed out, which have been classified as being at pre-alert for drought for some two years. So while there are times when we might see Cúber and Gorg Blau brimful, if we could see below the surface, we would get a different picture.

There has been little rain this winter. There has been snow, but this hasn’t meant a dramatic improvement to capacity. The situation with reserves does have a habit of going in cycles, but climate change seems to be having its influence. Torrential rain, of a type now being associated with climate change, will produce a visual amendment to capacity - what can be seen in the reservoirs - but as Mir points out, it has less impact on the aquifers than were there to be moderate rain over a period.

The cycles, the minister suggests, aren’t functioning as they used to. The fact that there have been units of demand at pre-alert for as long as they have been is unusual. Consequently, Mir is hinting that there may have to be restrictions on water use during the tourism season. While not yet back in the academic cloisters of the geography department, he is one to have already alluded to a de-growth. There has to be a reduction in tourist numbers in order to avoid problems with supply of water.
In terms of sustainability, water has to be the prime concern. Yes, desalination plants can be built, but desalination is an expensive operation demanding high energy output. And although energy has not been a ministerial responsibility, Miquel Mir will know that reduction in energy consumption is an objective of sustainability.

With nature not responding to needs, other forms of intervention are demanded. Sustainability goes hand in hand with circularity in the Balearics. We know this as there is now a tourism law devoted to both. For water reuse, therefore, the Balearic government has earmarked eight million euros of European funds for making water management by islands’ hotels more efficient. Reuse of wastewater is but one aspect of this initiative, President Armengol having stated that “we have to make every drop count”. “We are Mediterranean islands exposed more than other territories to the effects of climate change, and it is key that we work together in providing water security to residents and tourists.”

Indeed, but then not every drop does count. Apart from leaks in the network, how about all the water that rushes down the torrents into the sea? Would it be possible to capture some of this? As for reuse, we had the crazy situation in Alcudia a number of years ago when a major project for hotels had to be scrapped - after all the pipework had been laid - because there was too much salt in the water. Given the great challenge that water resources pose, who’d be an environment minister? Not Miquel Mir after May’s elections; he’ll trust that the quiet pastures of academia are adequately irrigated and, best of all, by recycled water.