Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Environmental Crisis Coming Our Way

"The Guardian" joined the Mallorca overcrowding bandwagon at the weekend. Apart from a factual error - the date of the introduction of the tourist tax - and certain points that needed qualifying, such as all those cruise ship passengers supposedly inundating Palma on one day, it was reasonable enough. Being "The Guardian", an environmentalist was sounded out. A GOB spokesperson, Gerard Hau, said that this will be a "crisis" year, "a crazy year, the infrastructure will not cope".

You would expect GOB to say this, but are forecasts of some touristic Armageddon just environmentalist hot air? We will only know once high summer arrives, but the current prognosis goes something like this: airport stretched beyond its limit; Palma crowded out by ships and passengers; roads chockful of hire cars; ever more thousands of apartments being rented out; the hotels full; limits needing to be placed on the numbers on unspoiled beaches; supermarket supplies questionable; water supplies threatened; outdated sewage-treatment plants incapable of taking the pressure. Too many planes, too many ships, too many cars, too many people.

It should be a bonanza, but the anxieties and fears seem to outweigh the joy and the benefits. Mallorca, safe haven destination, reaping the rewards of others' hardships: all systems go, until the dam bursts and the haven is flooded by a tsunami of human pressure.  

To take a specific. Water. The geographer Dr. Ivan Murray from the University of the Balearic Islands, one of Mallorca's most often quoted experts on the impact of tourism, said the other day that while a resident might consume 125 litres per day, a tourist will get through 440. One might query how he gets to these figures, but he is not the first one to point to the vast difference in terms of water usage. With Mallorca having endured a dry autumn and winter, we all know that water supplies are not as they should be. Thank Heaven that there was the foresight to build the Andratx and Alcudia desalination plants, barely used until now.

But desalinated water costs more than the water supplied from aquifers and reservoirs, and this water - from whatever source - goes for example, as Gerard Hau observed, towards the swimming pools and gardens of residential tourists. These aren't only foreigners. There are plenty of Mallorcan-owned second holiday homes.

Hau, it might seem strange, suggested that it is better to have "drinking ghettoes" such as Magalluf rather than have "intellectual types who tramp over everything in their search for the untouched bit, the original Mallorcan". Strange but not wholly wrong. There is a name for it. The Benidorm Effect. Pack tourism densely into specific areas, introduce sound environmental efficiency controls, and the overall cost and damage to the environment and resources are reduced.

Inefficiency is increased by having high dispersal of tourism, and there is ever greater dispersal in Mallorca, partly aided by legislation. The last government made easier the creation of rural tourism accommodation, one needing water and other services and so adding to inefficiency. It seemed minded to also permit developments such as polo fields. These might seem benign, but not when the supplies of water have to be factored in. Likewise with golf courses. Murray reckons that the 440 litres per day doubles if a tourist plays golf. His calculation is obviously not solely on direct personal consumption but the volume of water required to permit this type of tourism activity.

There again, if tourism is a vital industry, which it is, is this water usage any more detrimental than the vast amounts needed for agriculture? Tourism's contribution to island GDP is massively greater than that of agriculture, but then agriculture, with its huge appetite for land (and so therefore water), is equally vital. Citing GDP figures gets one only so far when produce, livestock, landscape, rural communities and employment need to be taken into account.

Water is just one example but it is a fundamental one. The lack of rainfall has sharpened minds, as have all the forecasts regarding numbers, be they for people or means of transport. But what, other than drafting drought plans, has the government been doing to prevent this being a "crisis" year? What actually can it do? Biel Barceló, the tourism minister, talks on the one hand of it being impractical to put a cap on numbers - preferring instead that the load is spread and therefore assists with tackling seasonality - but he also implies a cap. If there are finite numbers for hotels, so there should be for other accommodation.

Yet for all this, can anyone say what the cut-off point should be? Does anyone know for certain what this might be? Is talk of "crisis" correct or is it just environmentalist propaganda? We may be about to find out. But if systems start collapsing, don't blame the tourists. Forward planning had required more than a couple of desalination plants.

* http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/14/gridlock-tourists-terrorism-spain-balearics


Son Fe Mick said...

Water. Is that what is to be pumped along the pipes recently layed along the side of the Ma13 and other roads on the Island?

andrew said...

Wasn't that for natural gas, Mick?

Have you got your own well on Hyde Acres?