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As Catalonia roasts under record-breaking June temperatures and firefighters respond to the first major blazes in the tinder-dry countryside, a parallel drama is causing serious difficulties for thousands of people deep in the Catalan interior. At almost thirty municipalities in the counties of Les Garrigues and Segrià, in Lleida province, residents still have no drinking water in their homes, due to a pollution emergency that they have already endured for almost two weeks and will have to cope with for another week, or even more. Thus, local people face an unsustainable situation, in which they cannot use tap water for drinking or cooking, due to the effect of the agricultural application of pesticides.

The case of L'Albi

L'Albi is one of these municipalities, where they have not had drinking water for 13 days. It's a recurring problem for the town, located 40km southeast of Lleida: only a month ago they experienced the same situation, which that time went on for a week; however, in this latest episode the water treatment carried out has not yet managed to clean up the pollution. Four months ago, their water supply was also affected by an oil spill, of unknown origin, placing a film on the water that came out of the tap. Up till now, the response of the Catalan Water Agency (ACA) when there is no drinking water in a village has been to provide water tankers. At this time of year, however, it is more difficult to find the water trucks required: the two or three that have been found must be used to distribute water among all the affected villages. Residents, however, are given a very limited time to fill up with water: half an hour a week. If you are not there, you miss out. This Wednesday, in L'Albi, the truck arrives at 4 pm, under the most searing heat of the day, at the Plaça de la Cooperativa. “Who's able to go there at 4pm to fetch water? Older people, of course, can’t go out there at that time, to carry five-litre bottles of water back and forth. Nor the people who work, the people who are out... You have to coincide with that half hour. People end up just buying water", protests the mayor, Anna Feliu Moragues. She says that the water should be distributed in bottled form.

The town has a population of about 760, of whom around a hundred are over the age of 80. The local council has chosen to provide water bottles to the most vulnerable residents. Two large bottles of water per head were taken to homes today. If the problem continues early next week, it will take them two more bottles, and again at the end of the week. "For the time being, we have to pay for these bottles. We are small local councils with few resources, but we can't leave the elderly in a situation where they just have to fend for themselves,” he admits.

Translation: "We haven't had drinking water in L'Albi for 13 days. In the middle of a heat wave, we only have a tanker providing water for 30 minutes per week. From the town hall we have started to deliver bottled water to the elderly at home. We can't face a summer in these conditions!"— Anna Feliu Moragues, mayor of L'Albi

Temporary solution

The water distribution only began last Friday. This temporary solution arrived a week after the ban on drinking tap water due to the presence of higher concentrations of pesticides than allowed at the catchment point, located in the Utxesa reservoir, about 20km south of the city of Lleida. The authorities in the county of Les Garrigues predict that the problem could persist over time and have called for a longer term solution: the sourcing of water from the Albagés reservoir. The water service now depends on the Commonwealth of Les Garrigues, but a job like this requires the intervention of the Catalan Water Agency.

During the crisis, mayors in Les Garrigues have in fact blamed the Agency for the lack of drinking water. Specifically, the president of the Les Garrigues county council, Jaume Setó, expressed his outrage at a meeting of the 16 local mayors in the county with officials from the Lleida Health Region for "the negligence and inaction of the ACA in resolving a matter" which has been going on for "too many years". "They know that the solution involves building a water treatment plant at Albagés, a project that has been paralysed for fifteen years. They are playing games with people's health and this is inadmissible," he added.

Unsustainable situation

Teresa Culleres, mayor of one of the other municipalities affected, Sarroca de Lleida, 20km south of the provincial capital, denounced the lack of support from larger institutions that the towns have received in the face of this situation. She stated that in a meeting with all county representatives present, there was no representative of the Catalan government, such as a minister, who could listen and learn more about their situation. When Culleres spoke to, the temperature in Sarroca was hovering above 37C, making the situation even more unsustainable. In addition, these temperatures may continue to rise for the rest of the week. However, she celebrated that in the coming days the municipal swimming pools in the area will open their doors for the summer season, although this will obviously have no bearing in solving the real problem. As mayor, Culleres explains that her task over these days has been to help the residents as much as she can and to keep them informed of what they are being told from the Commonwealth of Les Garrigues.

On Tuesday, the Catalan Water Agency reported that the supply issue could be resolved within a week. This has been stated by the director of the agency, Samuel Reyes, ruling out that the pollution is due to uncontrolled dumping, but rather, that everything points to agricultural practices with the application of pesticides that would have been aggravated by this year's drought. Reyes guarantees the "necessary support" to the affected municipalities and has come out in favour of examining a new water source in the Albagés reservoir. Asked whether the problem will be solved next week, Culleres said it would be good news, but he still sees it far away and states that as long as pesticide levels continue at the same level, the picture will not improve.