Ibiza History & Culture

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Anthropological View

An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

Aïgu y Agua and Water
Water and Water and Water

Part Two


Over the last decade, the topic of aïgu (water) - or lack of it - has become a major discussion point amongst the pagès Eivissenc (Ibicencan peasant) population, particularly those declining numbers still involved in agriculture. The weather patterns are changing: the island is becoming increasingly arid. The island's expanding resident population, now thought to be around 94,000, is too much for the local water resources to easily support. Bear in mind that traditionally the population hovered around 25,000 and even then during times of drought and famine it was common during the 19th century for younger sons to emigrate to, say, Cuba, to relieve the population pressure. Combine that now with anything between one and two million tourists here each year during the summer months using water as if there is no tomorrow and the result is inevitable. The island's precious water table is thought to be in a precarious state. In Vila (Ciutat Eivissa, Ibiza town) and Portmany (San Antonio) the tap water is usually OK for washing and other chores, but not necessarily for drinking, although desalinization plants are hopefully beginning to make a difference.

Most of Eivissa's desperately needed rain falls between October and February, but last winter the rains failed to arrive in sufficient quantity, to put it mildly. This whole decade has been one of gradually decreasing rains or of rains coming in a torrential form that runs off the soil rather than penetrating deeply. It is not just rain that is needed, but a particular type of rain that seeps nourishingly into the soil and then helps to replenish the water table. The whole of the Balearic islands have been affected, but particularly Eivissa and Formentera (which are actually part of a Baleares sub-group of islands known as Ses Pitiusas), and there has unfortunately been little practical regard for water conservation amongst Eivissa's developers until very recently. On the evening of 23rd August 1993 the main channel (TVE 1) of Spanish Television announced the just-released predictions of the British Scientific Institute regarding possible climatic change in southern Spain and the western Mediterranean, thought then possibly to be the most drastic in Europe. Within 10-15 years, it was said, the area would be receiving 5-15% less rain annually, and much of that would be coming in heavier storms (i.e., less suitable for agriculture). The Baleares Government, based in Palma de Mallorca, quickly produced (in 1993) a sticker in five languages, "A Balears hi ha poca aigua. No la malbarati" in Catalan - "In the Balearics (sic) water is scarce. Do not waste it". But this prediction seems to have come true with a vengeance for Eivissa, and more quickly and drastically than originally envisaged. Periodically in the past the pagès would sometimes ask the local Catholic priests on the island to organise pregs (more commonly known as `rogativas' in Castillano/Spanish), for rain if drought became severe and the more ancient harvest/water rituals mentioned in last weeks article did not seem to be having their desired effect.

Some of the Catholic rituals for rain on the island centred around the ancient figure of a special female saint or Virgin - called by some the Virgin of Sa Talaia (the area of Sant Josep), which was supposed to be very effective in inducing rain. Elderly pagès laughingly recount the incident when one time the ceremony was too effective too quickly, and torrential rains drenched the gathered pagès crowds who angrily told the priest that he should have warned them to bring umbrellas. For some reason or other it seems that this figure of the Virgin, small and very old, disappeared during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and has been keeping a rather low profile ever since. After hearing about it for many years I finally found out in June that it is stored (not displayed) in a particular church on the western side of the island. These stories may be an amalgam of several female saintly/or Virgin figures that are believed to have/have had connections with rain/water. Maybe it is about time to bring the Virgin of Sa Talaia - or whoever - out of hiding.

However, the harvest/water rituals at the fonts (springs) and pous (wells) mentioned in Part One (Weekly Edition 025) have their origins in pre-Christian times and, now combined as being associated with a particular saint's day, had been the main spiritual ritual form of thanks and celebration of the bounty brought by water. During the 1970s and 1980s some of these rituals began to fall into disuse. New ideas brought in with sudden tourism development made some islanders feel that these ceremonies, not easy to organize, might not actually be of any use and were `old fashioned and out-of-date'. But it is good to see that old ideas die hard. As weather conditions dried out, elderly pagès, as for example in the area of Balansat (Sant Miquel), felt a need to revive the ballades for the fonts and pous. Traditionally more than 60 of these ceremonies took place each year on Eivissa and Formentera, those on Eivissa beginning from the night of Sant Joan on June 24th and finishing mostly in late August. This move to revive the ballades at springs and wells received support from the Consell Insular (Island Council/Government) particularly from the time that Joan Mari Tur became the Consell de Cultura (Cultural Councellor) in 1992 - these rituals had always been of great interest to him and, as an Eivissenc from the area of Sa Talaia (Sant Josep), he well knew the critical importance these rituals had for island life. The ballades rituals for springs and wells are growing back in importance now in these critical times when they are most needed, not just as a major statement of cultural identity but as a functioning series of ceremonies that have the island's most critical resource at heart.

It seems they are working. Nobody expects rain on Eivissa in July (although a minuscule 1mm of rain did fall in the western part of the island on 28th July 1991). Monday the 16th of July was a rather special day here this year: islanders woke up (most tourists were still sleeping off hangovers or whatever) to black cloudy skies and rolls of thunder. Cloud lightning (where one does not actually get visible bolts of lightning) - a form more common much later in the year - announced a thundery outbreak of rain lasting nearly four hours that blessed the island with 92 litres of rain per cubic metre around Escubells in the western part of the island to 54 litres/cubic metre in the area of the airport on the eastern side. It was the heaviest total July rainfall on the island since 1979, and all in one day, too! As much rain fell that morning as during the whole winter season when it is supposed to rain! Moreover, in spite of being a heavy rain, the ground was so dry and the rain of a particular type so that it soaked into the soil rather well in many parched corners of the island. The pagès were overjoyed (not so some of the 'We pay for sun' tourists, nor those in San Antonio and Ibiza Town where the antiquated drainage systems collapsed, as usual, and flooded the towns). These rains saved the island from a probable disastrous summer of dangerous forest fires (there had been a vast one over in the northeast of the island in early June).

But the island's water table is still a major concern. In June and July many Eivissencs (Ibicencos) in their 60s and 70s who had traditional family wells said they had never seen the well levels so low. Some isolated areas or houses (not all houses have wells) are now supplied by water trucks, but of the two major water companies supplying such water, one company is now rumoured to be supplying slightly salty water, indicating saline encroachment into that company's water source, not a good sign. In early August it was officially announced that the main drinking water supply well in Santa Eularia had run dry, the other supply wells were extremely low, and that water rationing might have to be introduced in the area, although the latter has not (yet) come into effect. The drought has brought out the islands ants with a vengeance, and some rural houses have become inundated with moltas formigas (what would be called 'una plaga de hormigas', a 'plague of ants' in Castillano/Spanish - but Eivissenc language /dialect seems to have no exact equivalent of 'plaga'). We are a couple days away from the festivities of Sant Bartomeu in Portmany (Sant Antoni) focused around 24th August (see Emily Kaufman's History of Ibiza article in Weekly Edition 025); traditionally it is supposed to rain at that time, so let us keep our fingers crossed.

If you are a tourist already on the island reading this, or a potential one overseas getting ready to come, please bear in mind the water situation on the island. If your hotel or tourism representative has not already given hints or advice about not wasting water (and also being careful about not throwing away lighted cigarettes in a potentially fire-prone area), you might politely suggest to them that they do so. The future of this island - for its nature, wildlife, residents, both Eivissenc and 'foraster' (foreigner), and tourists hangs from one rather thin liquid thread - aïgu. Asking tourists in the future to each bring a 5-litre bottle of water with them to the island in the future might sound like a joke, but it may not be in the future!

Apologies to my dear friend José P Ribas, our Ecological correspondent, for possibly encroaching slightly on his territory here - but those who read my column last week can see the links between culture and the environment. It's often rather difficult to have a clear cut-off point. Eivissa's major environmental organization, Amics de la Terra Eivissa, are planning a special seminar on the island's water situation later this year and I hope that Jose can cover that for you. Next week I will touch upon some anthropological aspects of water in some cultures around the world, but mainly try and make some sense about some rather disturbing reports beginning to surface regarding certain multinational companies beginning to look at the world's water supplies as a marketable resource that they might want to control and manipulate. So it may eventually affect you even if you don't come to Eivissa. After that I will be getting back to more purely cultural material.

With gratitude for the work of Joan Marí Tur (`Botja') and Marià Torres Torres.

Kirk W Huffman