With rainfall increasingly scarce, irrigating crops can be a major challenge, but farmers in southeastern Spain have long relied on recycled wastewater in a model that is winning attention abroad.
“Here the water is still dirty ... but by the end, it will be crystal clear and bacteria-free,” said Carlos Lardin, operations manager at Esamur, the public body overseeing wastewater management in the Murcia region.
At his feet, brownish water bubbled in a desilting tank, the first step before being sifted, filtered and then biologically treated to give it “a second life,” the 45-year-old engineer said.
Twenty-three years ago, Murcia — an arid region with chronic water shortages that claims to be the EU’s leading producer of fruit and vegetables — set itself a huge challenge of reusing wastewater to irrigate its crops.
To that end, the region built a network of 100 treatment plants that process and disinfect water from the sewage system so it can be reused on the fields.
This treatment, which involves sand filters and ultraviolet rays, ensures that the water “is not contaminated” and does not transfer bacteria “such as E coli” to the fruit and vegetables, Lardin said.
As a result, about 98 percent of the region’s wastewater is reused today, compared with an average of 9 percent across Spain and 5 percent across the EU, government data show.
It is an important contribution given that the central government has recently restricted Murcia’s huge water transfers from the Tagus River, whose levels have been dropping dangerously.
Esamur said that 15 percent of the region’s irrigation needs are met by recycled wastewater.
It is not enough to cover the need, but it is still important, said Feliciano Guillen, head of the Ceuti irrigation organization, which allocates water resources among farmers in northeastern Murcia.
Farmer Jose Penalver, who owns 10 hectares of land in the hills above Campos del Rio, agreed.
“Whatever [water] can be collected is good wherever it comes from as long as it’s put to good use,” the 52-year-old apricot grower said.
In his fields, an automated drip-irrigation system lets him limit water use to what is strictly necessary, in this case, two hours per day.
“Without this [recycled] water, everything here would dry up,” he said. “Every drop counts.”
Evidence of this growing interest has been seen in Murcia, where in the past few months, “many foreign delegations have come to see our facilities,” Lardin said, pointing to visitors from as far afield as Argentina and Bolivia.
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