Spanish original and photos
The Virgin of the Saints is the most effective symbol uniting the people of Alcalá. A link which nobody can dispute, which everyone accepts without question. It is simple faith translated into popular religion, passed on by mothers to their children with impressive fidelity. And the men maintain a silence, indicating a respect which nobody would dare to question.
By contrast, some years produced an exceptional phenomenon for all the inhabitants of Alcalá: farmers, livestock breeders, gardeners, farm labourers, asparagus-gatherers, temporary workers, caterers … this was the drought. When the situation became desperate, the people would ask the Brotherhood to bring the Virgin to the town. The lack of water was the worst thing that could happen, and often brought poverty, epidemics and illness. In the years of drought, the last resort was to bring the Virgin from the Sanctuary and for all the townspeople to accompany her to the River Barbate in the Prado.
They carried her on her mobile platform and stood her in the river. The people prayed and beseeched her with cries – “Our Mother of the Saints, water!” This was repeated time and time again, until it started raining or got dark. When night began to fall on the Prado the Virgin would be returned to the church and people would be sure they could see dark clouds in the sky. They swore that before dawn the fields would be watered. And they went to bed reassured that they would wake up to fields flooded with water.
The Alcalainos tell a somewhat derisive story about the people of Medina. They say that processions to plead for water rarely took place there. This was because the old parish priest did not like processions, and when the people asked for one he would say “There is no need, because they've taken out the Virgin of the Saints in Alcalá, and if it rains in Alcalá, it will rain in Medina.” In Alcalá they took drought very seriously, because the economy and life of the city depended totally on water.
With time, the Town Council and the people recognised that what God and the Virgin wanted was for them to take necessary preventative measures in years of bad drought. The solution was to construct more and better reservoirs. The rivers of Alcalá produced a sufficient flow of water, but they emptied into the sea without giving any benefit. This water had to be collect and stored through the winter, then administered sensibly and with good judgement during the long summer months.
Some years the countryside dried up completely and the inhabitants of the hill-towns suffered water restrictions. In contrast, the plains of the lower Guadalquivir offered an impressive spectacle with fields covered in green and the taps running unrestricted. There they had been building reservoirs since the 1920s.
More than that, the imbalance in water management took water away from some and flooded the farms of others. This year, 2010, we had two months of rain, the rivers of Alcalá burst their banks and the fields were flooded. It was even said that some reservoirs had to drain off water and others could not be prevented from overflowing.
Vegetable gardens abounded in the region. In Alcalá alone there were over 200. There were no reservoirs upstream on the rivers because it was assumed that Alcalá had sufficient water in its aquifers. And it so does, Paradoxically, in Almeria, where there is very little rain, in the last drought (2005/6) there were no water restrictions. On the other hand in the Sierra de Cádiz, one of the places with the highest rainfall in Spain, many families suffered cuts in their water supply.
Experts in migratory movements predict that in the next ten years many foreigners will move to the Sierras of Cádiz and Málaga to enjoy their years of retirement. They come looking for the good climate, sunshine, flora and fauna, and culinary riches. It is estimated that the population could double. For this, we need to plan ahead and ensure that water is collected in reservoirs rather than running into the sea, and repair reservoirs that lose water. These new residents will want enough water for golf courses, lawns and swimming pools. In Medina there is already a golf course under construction. Alcalá is in the privileged position of being able to aspire to restoring its population to the years when it had around 12,000 inhabitants. The new ways of life will need more water.
This very year the reservoirs have had to open their floodgates because they cannot hold all the rainfall. The only reservoir which fell short of being completely full was the Guadalcacin. Its constructor said he has never seen it full, but this year it reached 90% capacity. With this quantity of water we have enough to last for four years, even if not a drop more rain falls. Within a few years however, in a new cycle of drought, we may have to return to asking the Virgin for water if the reservoirs don't do their job.
Translated by Claire Lloyd