Ibiza Has a Water Problem
The island is sustained by clubbing, but clubbing is destroying the island.
VICE is supporting the launch of the Global Goals for sustainable development. In the next fifteen years, they want to achieve three massive tasks: end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice and fix climate change.
It's 7AM on my last night in Ibiza, and the pincers of a dehydration headache are starting to clench into my skull. I'm at the tail end of a six-day party bender, dancing in a strobe-lit cavern at Space, where 15-year resident Carl Cox, in a sailor cap and a shirt that says "VIBES," is playing his guts out back-to-back with Nic Fanciulli. I haven't slept in two days.
Knowing that I'm precariously close to pushing my body past its limit, I steal away towards the sink in the club's fluorescent-lit bathroom, clutching an empty water bottle that cost me 10 euros earlier in the evening, thinking fuck it, I'll just fill it up here and save some dough. As I push the tap, a few women turn around with bemused smiles. They already know what I'm about to find out: the water in my mouth tastes rancid, like the salty upchuck of a sea monster with a stomach ache. I've made a rookie mistake, and this nasty surprise is my prize.
Everyone who comes to Ibiza quickly wisens up to the irony that even though the Mediterranean island is surrounded by crystal clear ocean water, there's hardly a drop to drink. Space was one of the saltiest offenders, but nearly every club I boogied in had taps pumping out briney grossness, including superclubs like Pacha, DC10, Amnesia, and Sankeys, as well as smaller venues like Lips and Ibiza Underground.
At first, I suspected foul play. Given how much the clubs in Ibiza depend on the haphazard spending habits of wasted tourists, was it possible that they were polluting their tap water on purpose? With bottled water going for 8 to 12 euros a pop, the potential profit margins would be nothing to sneer at. But as I would soon find out, the salty water running out of the taps at clubs like Space is serviced by the country's water infrastructure, and it's part of a larger problem that affects every strata of the island—from the locals living in the mountains to the five-star hotels by the beach.
Simply put, Ibiza is having a water crisis.
The problem stems from the island's mass overconsumption of drinkable water—a precious resource on any island surrounded by ocean, but especially one besieged by millions of thirsty tourists every summer. According to Katherine Berry, a volunteer who runs the water conservation campaign for local eco-group Ibiza Preservation Fund, Ibiza's water supply comes from two sources; the first is an extensive pipeline of underground lakes, also known as aquifers, that sit under a layer of porous limestone. These aquifers provide almost half of the water consumed on the island. The second is a network of desalination plants that work to filter out salt from water.
But with a record 3.5 million tourists flocking to Ibiza in the first seven months of 2015—dwarfing the residential population of 140,354 inhabitants—demand for clean water far exceeds the limited supply. This results in the aquifers being depleted faster than they can be replenished by rainfall, says Berry. What's more, low volumes of water in the aquifers can cause pressure changes within the limestone walls, allowing seawater to seep into the supply—part of the reason why the water running from the nightclubs' taps tastes so foul. Salt pollution varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. Berry notes that the popular beach neighborhood Platja d'en Bossa—where you'll find clubs like Space, Ushuaïa, Sankeys, and DC10—has a whopping 24 times more salt than drinkable water levels, which is probably why these clubs had the worse-tasting water out of all the sinks I tried to drink from.
Polluted aquifers have led to Ibiza's increasing dependency on desalination plants—the island's other primary source of water. There are three public desalination plants on the island (although one still hasn't opened due to financial disputes), but Berry tells me that some hotels are known to have their own private, illegal ones. Clubs with their own desalination plants are less common, although Josh Fisher, the event/creative director at Space, told me that Ibiza Underground, a smaller club in a former private villa, is rumored to have its own osmosis treatment machine—an expensive water filter that's popular in private residences but is highly wasteful because it dumps out several liters of water for every purified liter.
Desalination plants produce clean water by removing salt content, but they're hardly a panacea. In fact, they end up causing further damage to the environment because waste is dumped into the island's sewage system, which isn't built to accommodate such high levels of salt. "According Ibiza's agricultural planning, sewage water was supposed to be recycled and go into [irrigating farmland]," Berry says. "But now it can't be recycled, so you've got waste."
To make matters worse, Ibiza is also in the middle of a drought. According to statistics provided by the General Directorate of Water Resources in the Balearic Department of Agriculture, Environment, and Territory, two years of poor rainfall caused water reserves to fall to 29% in June 2015, the lowest they've been in that month for an an entire decade.
The situation is bad enough that just a few weeks ago, on September 18, 2015, the Balearic government instituted an emergency drought law, which aims to preserve water through measures like reducing how much water can be extracted from the aquifers, suspending the drilling of new wells, and requiring local municipalities to audit the water usage of residents. In a Spanish-language report published by Ibiza digital journal Noudiari, the president of the Balearic Government, Francina Armengol, said this new law will address "Ibiza's environmental emergency," and criticized previous governments for doing little to address the issue.
The government's attempt to tackle Ibiza's growing water problem after years of inattention is applauded by Chris Dews, a rugged, salt-and-pepper-haired ecologist behind two eco-minded organizations on the island: local farm Casita Verde, which serves as an education center for sustainable living and alternative energies, and non-profit Greenheart International, a student exchange program that promotes environmentalism and volunteerism. "If you run out of water, it's a serious story—especially if you've invited tons of tourists over and they can't take showers," Dews tells me over Skype.
Ibiza's water crisis is greatly the product of party tourism; yet, tourism remains the economic motor of the island, bringing in 17.4 billion euros, or 72 percent of the island's GDP, in 2008. According to Chris Barratt, an English-born, Ibiza-based DJ who goes by the alias Eagles & Butterflies and has released on labels like Innervisions and Get Physical, it's a complex problem to untangle. Even if the locals and people in power are very aware of the situation, the hordes of hard-partying visitors making annual pilgrimages to the dance music mecca are sheltered by ignorance—or worse, apathy. "I don't think tourists care, as it's not their home," Barratt says, adding rather ominously, "They will soon when there is no drinking water left on the island."
Even with the government on increasingly high alert, a grassroots network of environmentally conscious locals and expats would appear to be the real force behind a growing movement to spread awareness about Ibiza's water problem. "This is the best time ever, in ecological terms, for organizing," Casita Verde's Dews says, referring to our current era of internet activism. "Everyone is joining together to discuss [the water crisis], people are talking about it on Facebook, and the word is out that we have to take care of the island. We're feeding the revolution."
This eco-scene is out in full force at the Spirit Festival, a free event held at Agroturismo Atzaro, a secluded hotel in a family-owned farmhouse in central Ibiza.
After a nearly 40-minute journey from my villa in a taxi through precarious dirt roads, I arrive to find a crowd of lithe fashion models, stylish Euro bohemians, golden-haired children, and a certain DJ named Josh Wink, frolicking between yoga sessions, tantra workshops, and singing circles amidst canopied beds and fountain-covered lawns. Amidst all of this Elysian activity, a young entrepreneur and UK transplant named Nat Rich is handing out samples of water from her company, Sustainable Flow. Practically glowing with health, Rich looks like a cross between Marissa Cooper from The O.C. and that impossibly zen barista at your neighborhood kombucha bar.
Later, over Skype, Rich explains to me that last year, she was inspired during a meditation session to start a sustainable water company that would provide a healthier alternative to drinking from taps or plastic bottles. Having spent more than a decade visiting the island, she decided to move to Ibiza this summer, and founded Sustainable Flow. The company sells products like water distillers, purifiers, and testing kits—but it goes one step further than other water companies in the area by combining science with New Age theories, and specifically, the idea that you can use sacred geometry and magnetic fields to purify water of toxic chemicals like limescale. Rich claims that the result, which she calls "conscious water," has health benefits, increases crop yields, and actually reduces the volume of water that home-owners and businesses consume overall. "Conscious water means thinking about the planet, and not wasting water to get pure water," Rich says.
Rich met Casita Verde and Greenheart International founder Chris Dews after selling him once such device for us on his farm, and together, they co-run a bi-weekly meeting that aims to bring together Ibiza's eco-minded companies under one umbrella. "The world now has the most amount of water charities that it's ever had, but we somehow still have the biggest water problem we have ever had, too," says Rich. "On a collective scale, something isn't working and a different approach needs to be taken." Rich says her plan is to create an organized collective of Ibiza water businesses, which will then approach the island's hotels and clubs with eco-friendly alternatives to what they're currently using for water.
"Because [the water problem] hasn't been looked at on a huge island scale, club owners can't be discriminated against for not doing anything," Rich explains. "We need to work together. Nobody here's to piss all over the bonfire. Everyone wants to make [the island] the best that it can be."
Despite Rich's sunny optimism, it's hard to see clubs taking profit-hurting measures like trading plastic bottles for more expensive, but less environmentally harmful, glass ones; drawing from desalination plants, so customers can drink clean tap water for free; or increasing the size of water bottles, so that fewer bottles are used overall. Per Space creative director Fisher, the reason why so many clubs keep selling overpriced bottles of water is because demand is so high. "You have to understand that a lot of people get into parties for free, everyone takes a lot of narcotics, and four people will share a drink," he explains. "[Water isn't something] we use as a money-maker, but I understand why [water] is expensive in clubs."
The residents of Ibiza already have a strong track record of banding together under unifying causes—from successfully fending off prospective oil drilling in 2014 to forcing MTV to abandon its plans to film a season of Jersey Shore spinoff Ibiza Shore. The tricky thing about Ibiza's water crisis, though, is that there are too many conflicting interests involved. It's a catch-22: the island is sustained by clubbing, but clubbing is destroying the island. Clubs have the prerogative to keep attracting tourists in record numbers and profiting off their insatiable thirst for both water and hedonism.
When it comes to Space, Fisher says the club is doing its part to be eco-conscious by recycling all their plastic, cardboard, and glass. But these measures can only go so far because there are no recycling plants on Ibiza. Instead, recyclables are picked up from collection points and shipped to offshore plants in Saragossa and Mallorca, which means that even a recycled bottle of water still leaves a significant carbon footprint. Ultimately, the government needs to do more, Fisher says. "I think councils are more to blame in this—they warn about illegal taxis, taking drugs, and not wearing a T-shirt in public. Nothing about water."
At the end of the day, clubs can only do so much to tackle Ibiza's water crisis if sunburnt tourists lost in tech-house reveries don't want to listen, which Fisher says raises an important question: "If a club warned you about a water shortage, would you take note?"
Michelle Lhooq is still in recovery from her Ibiza party rampage. Follow her on Twitter.
For more information on the Global Goals go to collectively.org