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Mucha agua

Apparently the average Briton spends four and a half months of their life talking about the weather. In Extremadura the figure is surely much higher than that. It’s true that when the level of your spoken Spanish doesn’t lend itself to discussing philosophy or pop music, it’s a reliable option to lead with last night’s storm or tomorrow’s forecast, but even among themselves extremeños seem to talk of little else.

And why not? In the agricultural economy of the dehesa the weather is everything. And it hasn’t been going well. A prolonged drought has meant the region's aquifers, rivers and reservoirs have fallen to alarming lows. In one extraordinary case, the receding waters revealed 5,000-year-old megalithic columns known as the Spanish Stonehenge.

Water, and access to it, is the stuff of life here. Every finca must have its own source, su charco, and having a reliable one is a valuable asset. Many villages have water-related names or prefixes: Fuentes (fountains), Arroyo (stream), Garganta (gorge). Every village has at least one fountain where people still like to collect their own water rather than buy it in plastic bottles at the supermarket, and everyone knows which fuentes have the best tasting water. Some villages still have a covered area with concrete washboards next to the fountain, where the women used to do their laundry and catch up on all the news.

The word of late has been that the water shortage is becoming critical. Just over the border in Andalusia, the natural springs that supply Cañaveral de León’s unique irrigation lagoon dried up for the first time in living memory last summer. Fortunately for the locals who use it as a leisure facility in July and August, the ayuntamiento agreed to fill it over the course of a week from the precious domestic supply.

In northern Extremadura, Andy's neighbour Fidel recently sunk a new borehole to provide water for his cows. His previous one, done twenty years ago, went down 60 metres; this year's had to sink 120 metres to find water. There’s plenty of debate about whether global warming is to blame, or whether the region’s notoriously tough climate has thrown up similar challenges in the past. But older people will tell you it used to rain a lot more here between November and March, with some snow thrown in in January. (See for example the account of Carlos V's sodden arrival in Jarandilla in 1557).

Extremeños like the fact that the name Extremadura combines the Spanish words for “extreme” and “hard”. But everyone agrees the recent drought has been un desastre.

So when the rains finally came in January, it was not only the main topic of conversation but also a source of general happiness. Go into a bar and you’ll hear people agreeing "es muy bueno por los prados", it's good for the meadows. It will take many more downpours, however, before the reservoirs and rivers are back at sustainable levels.

Rain isn't always welcome. When the almond, olive and cherry trees are in flower it's vital that it doesn’t rain. That's because raindrops will sit in the petals and if the next day is sunny the flower will be ruined by hot water. Cooked.

So, if you’re ever stuck for something to say in Extremadura try “va a llover?” and it will trigger a lengthy debate about when it might rain and if the rain will be the right type. But people here don’t tend to call it rain, or lluvia. It seems more essential than that. They talk about agua. Mucha agua.


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