Farmers fear for future harvests as climate change takes its toll on Spanish agriculture

Fires are spreading in Spain where sun-baked land acts as a tinder-box, ITV News Science Editor Deborah Cohen reports

It's known as the 'Big Empty': Castilla-La Mancha in central Spain has never been lush and water has always been in short supply.

Farming is central to the local economy and the people who work there have always grappled with a challenging environment. The region was brought to life in Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote and the iconic white stone windmills are still dotted across the land - a reminder of the power that wind has played here for centuries. And while Quixote may have tilted at them imagining them to be giants that needed to be fought, the modern day versions may be the saviours for some who need to diversify their land. This area is becoming increasingly dry. A recent study suggested Spain was the driest it's been for over a thousand years with no rain in May - a critical time for farming.

Research has suggested that Spain is suffering their driest climate for more than 1,000 years. Credit: ITV News / On Assignment

And water is becoming ever scarcer, leading to tensions between those who want to protect their livelihoods and those looking after the natural environment. "Cambio climático" - climate change - are words that come up repeatedly in the area.

Arturo Serrano-Large and his family have farmed olives and grapes for generations. He tells me that they haven't had rain since April and he's noticed a change in the weather. When they do get rain, he says, it may all come at once, which means there isn't a consistent supply for crops. This is having an impact on the crops and how and when they farm them, he says. He says they're fighting for the future.

His father just wants to be allowed to use more water from the underground water sources.

Arturo says the problem is more complex and wants to use new technology to use what water he has available to him in the best possible way. But others have turned to the illegal - tampering with supplies.

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Water usage here is policed. Farmers have their quotas. Lieutenant Francisco - known as Paco - is one of a handful of environmental police officers tasked with checking people don't use more than they should. He checks permits and water meters to see if they're being tampered with. He's also on the lookout for illegal boreholes, which attempt to dig deep into the underground water supplies. Estimates suggest there are about a million in Spain, but there are few data. Contravening the rules means a fine or prison. For Paco it's simple. He tells me that water is a scarce natural resource and we all have to take care of it. He says he's noticed a change in rainfall and hotter weather which have meant scarcer water and wildfires in recent years. Without equivocation he points to climate change. About 50 miles from Arturo's farm, Rafael Gonsalvez Rey takes me to a dried up lagoon.

It used to have wildlife in it - but that's all gone. This time of year you'd expect it to be dry, but this is now dry even in winter. Up the road another lagoon - this one artificial and from waste water. Flamingos have settled here. This isn't their natural habitat. Ecosystems are changing too. For some this might not be a big issue, but Rafael thinks we shouldn't be changing the ecosystem in this way. He says the problem is bigger than illegal boreholes - the land cannot sustain intensive farming.

'You have to fight every single day with the climate and the cost of production'

Underground water sources are under threat too. Farmers need to diversify what they sew and may need to use their land for things like solar and wind farms. Castilla-La Mancha is also home to one of Spain's national parks, Tablas de Daimiel.

The Guadiana River used to run through it. But it's now dry around here. And it's not just the birds that have left - local communities that used the river for their livelihoods have packed up too. Local ecologist Alberto Celis-Pozuelo told me that the problem started in the 1980s with overexploitation of the water by farmers.

Mr Celis-Pozuelo describes how climate change and over exploitation of resources have impacted on farming

The overexploitation of underground water is being exacerbated by climate change. Farmers want more water for their crops and so drain more underground water. It's a vicious cycle, he says. Alberto wants the government to restore the area - but he's not optimistic.

These are unforgiving lands and people are used to adapting. But climate change is hitting hard here and people are facing some pretty fundamental questions about their future. Watch Deborah's On Assignment report on ITV tonight (Tuesday 26 July) at 10.45pm or afterwards on the ITV Hub