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Friday, October 13, 2006

The Water In the Canary Islands

Galerías de agua

Years ago, on a trip to the Bananera Jardines del Atlantico - a park constructed from an old banana plantation in the Valle San Lorenzo in the south of Tenerife - I learned how water is obtained on this island via galerías (underground galleries) in the mountains, which was explained by the use of a working model of the island.

In an article from locally "adopted son", historian and University Professor, Manuel J. Lorenzo Perera, we learn a little more about this process of obtaining water from these underground sources, with photos of the gallery in the El Palmar valley in area of the aptly named Monte del Agua (Water Mountain). This is also the area that contains and you can visit, some of the island's only last remaining bits of ancient laurisilva (subtropical cloud forest endemic to the islands).

Many people, including locals, do not know that there are no rivers from which to obtain fresh water on these islands, nor do they know from where the water is obtained. Nobody explains that you shouldn't fill the bath, nor run the shower or tap for a long time, out of respect for this scarce and difficult to obtain resource.

Perera calls the water trade "Un negocio doblemente subterráneo" (A doubly underground business), given that it is where it physically takes place and the manner in which, in days of old, that it was managed. The two men who are pictured in the article are amongst those who had worked in this dangerous business, wading about in water with no boots, no safety equipment, no work contracts, no health or accident coverage and in an atmosphere full of dangerous gasses.

Most of the galleries in Tenerife were opened during the 20th Century and are horizontal tunnels, orientated to extract what has always been a scarce and precious resource. The galleries vary in length, between 1,000 and 2,000 meters, which were excavated - with dynamite and hand tools - 3/4 of a meter, or a meter at most with an experienced worker, during the 8 to 12 hour working day. It wasn't until the 1950's, when any sort of mechanization was introduced.

For many young men in this area, working in these water mines was the only employment available to complement working the land for subsistence. It was an unknown world worked, in blood and sweat, in deplorable conditions, by these authentic hombres-topos (mole-men) down in the dark tunnels.

In those days, the water was not a matter for the local council either. Once it was excavated, it was channeled to a "trusted source" who then saw to distributing it, via private "shareholders", to the enclaves they considered convenient.

These labour conditions explain why throughout the history of the galleries, quite unsurprisingly, there have been numerous grave accidents: loss of limbs, loss of partial or total hearing from the blasts and even the death of some miners.

It is therefore unsurprising that when the gallery of El Carmen in Las Portelas here in the El Palmar valley was first opened, a niche was constructed to the right-hand side of the entrance, in which was placed a small image of the Virgen del Carmen.

Outside the gallery there is a rosebush of small roses and every day, the daughters of the miners would take roses to offer to the virgin, when they took food to their fathers, both to protect their ancestors and so that we never lack the water of life.

(With tap water still being declared unsuitable for drinking in various areas, including this, because of elevated levels of fluoride - something one can be a little more tolerant of knowing how lucky we are to get any water, under these circumstances - perhaps it's time to go up the hill and check that the virgin has enough roses?)

El agua en Canarias. Un negocio doblemente subterráneo