Mapping dryness

As Spain heats up – “the average surface temperature in Spain has risen 2.7 degrees compared with about 1.4 degrees globally since 1880,” the New York Times reports – we are seeing the “Africanization” of its climate.
The Sahara, you could say, is spreading north.

[Image: Monica Gumm for The International Herald Tribune].

Previously lush hills are now barren of plantlife; soil is turning to dust; streams have dried up and farms are dying.
But golf courses and casinos are still being built, and hotels, so far, have kept their pools full.
“Grass on golf courses or surrounding villas is sometimes labeled a ‘crop,'” we read in the New York Times, “making owners eligible for water that would not be allocated to keep leisure space green. Foreign investors plant a few trees and call their vacation homes ‘farms’ so they are eligible for irrigation water.”
It’s the hydrology of leisure.
“No one knows if it goes to a swimming pool,” the head of a local water board says.
On a purely bureaucratic level, this is genius: reclassifying your backyard as an agricultural zone so that you can get water rations from the government.
But will this really be the last gasp of southern European civilization, as the dunes roll in, leaving unfinished resorts surrounded by dead olive tree orchards, burying half-drunk British tourists alive beneath surprise evening dust storms? Is well-watered leisure really the only option available to us here – or will a new kind of strategic xeriscaping save us from endemic thirst?
More practically, all of this brings to mind an ongoing interest of mine in a future landscape design project: mapping zones of desertification in southern Europe.
You go around for the summer with a landscape architecture class, a box full of GPS devices, and some graph paper, producing a new cartography of aridity. France, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal. Whoever finds the northernmost point of desert – some strange and growing patch of dust outside Berlin – wins something.
But the minute any territory anywhere in Europe is officially named part of the Sahara Desert will be a very surreal moment, indeed.
After all, the Sahara “was once lush and populated” – and so was Europe, future caravans camped out around drained swimming pools will someday say.

7 thoughts on “Mapping dryness”

  1. I think that mapping job is a great idea. Not exclusively affecting Spain. Not only get to map the phenomenon worldwide and considering the bureacratic gaps concerning it, but also trying to learn for the future about nomad cultures and ways of adapting to surviving in a desertical climate. From all of those wise civilizations that have made it for long.
    Last, let me make a non-serious recall on 70´s Sergio Leone´s spaguetti westerns filmed in Almeria. I just expect people don´t think of Spain that way, hum.

  2. Hi folks,

    I thought your blog audience might have an interest in my new book, Leisureville. It is about the proliferation of age-segregated retirement communities for people in their 50s and 60s. Children may visit, but their guest passes time out much like international visas, after which time they are basically reduced to the status of human contraband. In the book, I trace the history of this phenomenon to the Arizona desert of the 1950s, as well as profile the world’s largest gated retirement community (in Florida). It’s called The Villages and it is nearly twice the size of Manhattan, will have a population of more than 110,000, and no children are allowed. The growth of leisurevilles represents nothing less than a revolution in our societal living arrangements as well as the intersection of many themes that define us today: manufactured leisure and convenience, segregation, escapism, sprawl, fortressing, government by contract, and more. Twelve million Americans are expected to move to leisurevilles in the coming decade or so, and that’s a very conservative estimate. This is not a sunbelt phenomenon — the majority of leisurevilles are now being built in the North, outside major cities like San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia.

    Below are two reviews from the New York Times Sunday Book Review, and The Washington Post Book World. (You can read the full reviews by hyperlinking on the newspaper titles.) You can also learn more about Leisureville by visiting my website:

    Best Wishes,


    Fascinating…. Secession movements are an American instinct, and Blechman sees one afoot in the migration of young, well-off retirees to the land of golf and sunshine…. If you are squeamish at the thought of people over 55 socializing, having sex, drinking, smoking pot, line dancing and saying they are happy with their lives, avert your eyes now…. Blechman disappears down the rabbit hole.
    — The New York Times Sunday Book Review

    After reading Leisureville, the first thing I have to say is: Listen up.
    — The Washington Post


  3. Hey Andrew, your book sounds really interesting, but I have to say I dislike your (or your employees’) marketing plan of leaving advertisements on peoples’ blogs.

    I’m not trying to play moderator here, I’m just saying it makes me exponentially less likely to spend money on your book.

  4. I’m not a global warming denialist, but I don’t think the term should be thrown around in relation to every story of local climate change. Especially since we’re in the middle of a few years of short-term cooling trend within the larger, predicted warming trend. Sounds like this has a lot to do with water management, illegal wells, and one bad summer of drought in 2005.

  5. As part of your mapping project, it might be fun to think about what the future geomorphological monuments might be, like the Sphinx or mud-lions seen across the current Sahara. And the fossils?

    An imprint in the sediment of seating of Marseilles football stadium? A lock of Bridget Bardot’s hair? Or the calcified remains of a rubbish tip in Naples.

    ? 😀

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