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Acequias: Restoring water channels from the days of Al-Andalus to irrigate modern Spain | Culture

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Workers fixing up an old water channel from the days of the Nasrid dynasty in Granada.
Workers fixing up an old water channel from the days of the Nasrid dynasty in Granada.MEMOLab

Overlooking the city of Granada, in the upper reaches of Monte del Sombrero, the medieval historian and archeologist José María Civantos points out a ditch about five meters wide and two meters deep, filled with weeds and garbage.

“This is the Aynadamar acequia [irrigation channel],” he explains. “There are documents showing that for a thousand years it provided the Albaicín district of Granada with water, beginning in the 11th century. It supplied the artisans who went to the Alhambra to build the Nasrid palaces in the 13th and 14th centuries, and also the Catholic Monarchs’ troops who conquered the Nasrid kingdom in 1492.”

The channel climbs for about seven kilometers, crossing the ravine of Víznar, where the poet Federico García Lorca was executed in 1936, to its source at the Fuente Grande de Alfacar.

The Aydanamar acequia fell into disuse in the 1980s, after more than 1,000 years, when the construction of the road from Granada to Murcia cut across parts of it. But in the first quarter of 2022 it will once again be operative thanks to a project launched by the University of Granada, and developed by the MEMOLab laboratory, with funding from the Granada Water Foundation and the companies EMASAGRA and Hidralia.

“We will remove the waste that has been accumulating there, link the separated sections of the channel and allow the water to flow to the University of Granada campus to irrigate its gardens,” says Civantos.

But the Aydanamar watercourse is only a small part of the vast irrigation system that the Arabs built during their seven-century rule of much of the Iberian peninsula. The acequias were abandoned from the 1960s onwards as rural Spain became increasingly depopulated and the agri-food industry turned to an intensive model of farming, using irrigation systems incompatible with traditional methods.

Recovery work is carried out on another irrigation channel.
Recovery work is carried out on another irrigation channel.MEMOLab

To reverse the situation, the University of Granada launched a program for the recovery and cleaning of irrigation channels in 2014 that kicked off in the town of Cañar, in Granada’s Alpujarras mountain region, where a small community of about 200 residents had begun to reactivate the system. “The university provided resources and groups of volunteers and the irrigation community housed them in a local farmhouse and lent them materials,” says Cayetano Álvarez, president of the Cañar irrigation community whose two-hectare garlic and beans farm was one of the many that benefited from the water. “Over the course of a month, students and volunteers cleaned the Barjas irrigation channel. When the water began to flow along it for the first time in 30 years, we held a party – the water festival – which we have repeated every March since.”

The irrigation channel has not only provided locals with water, it has also strengthened social ties since its upkeep requires the collaboration of the entire community. “We have an acequiero who makes sure that leaves do not enter the channel where it flows through the oak groves. Otherwise, we keep it clean ourselves and share the water rights, not only in Cañas but with other towns like Órgiva, which also benefit,” says Álvarez. In 2015, a year after its implementation, the Barjas irrigation channel received recognition for good practices by the Hispania Nostra association.

Several workers and volunteers dig in a bid to recover one of the Nasrid-era irrigation channels in the Granada area.
Several workers and volunteers dig in a bid to recover one of the Nasrid-era irrigation channels in the Granada area.MEMOLa

“Since then, we have collaborated in the recovery of 14 abandoned irrigation channels and we have participated in the annual cleaning of at least another 30,” says Civantos, who promotes traditional agricultural methods combined with the latest technology, as well as the use of social media to organize volunteers. “This has meant working on more than 80 kilometers of acequias and the participation of some 1,500 people.” Despite efforts so far, the pending challenge is daunting as there are around 3,000 kilometers of irrigation channels in the Sierra Nevada alone, although Civantos estimates that in the provinces of Granada and Almeria there are around 24,000 acequias.

“But it is not only a question of volunteering and resources,” Civantos adds. “It is also about the social recognition of rural areas, agricultural activity and local knowledge, which is scientifically valid in most cases, all of which generates landscapes with cultural and environmental value – immense resources that are key to guaranteeing our future as a species.”

An economic revolution

In the year 711 AD, after a dazzling military campaign that ended with the destruction of the Visigothic kingdom and the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, the Muslim invaders exchanged their swords and spears for picks and shovels and began to dig irrigation channels, taking advantage of the slopes on the land and using sticks and stones to build dams along the rivers, as they had seen their ancestors do in Syria and Arabia. “Irrigation and water management were essential for the economic development of Al-Andalus,” says Civantos. “This is the only way to explain the splendor of the Umayyads dynasty and the Córdoba Caliphate.”

Although the Iberian Peninsula already had very sophisticated irrigation systems, such as the Roman aqueducts, the Arabs placed irrigation at the heart of production. The irrigation channels, the drainage systems and the dams not only made it possible to adapt new tropical crops to the Mediterranean climate, such as citrus fruits, sugar cane, cotton, rice, artichoke and spinach, they also facilitated diversification and increased productivity, generating an essential surplus for the development of industry and trade in cities like Almeria and Granada.

“A clear example is the cultivation of mulberry trees and the silkworm, which was bred by the peasant women, giving rise to a flourishing economic activity and the export of thread and fabrics from enclaves such as Almeria to the entire Mediterranean and Europe,” says Civantos. The definitive expulsion of the Moriscos, former Muslims forced to convert to Christianity, at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century put an abrupt end to this economic model.

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Government rejects calls to introduce a right to work from home

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The Government has rejected calls to introduce a right to work from home, promising instead to legislate for a right for employees to request home-working.

Opposition politicians have called for a right to work remotely.

However, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar said that while the Government’s proposed Bill would require employers to consider such requests, they would still be able to reject them.

He argued that employers are more likely to grant requests to work from home for fear of being brought to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) – which will be the appeals mechanism in the new law.

Cabinet is set to consider the proposals as hundreds of thousands of workers face a gradual return to the office over the coming weeks.

Unions have said that employers must consult with their members about the return to on-site working and ICTU chief Patricia King warned that some workers will not be able to return for health reasons.

Mr Varadkar said new safety protocols are to be published by the end of the week as he spoke about the Government’s plans to legislate for the right to request remote working.

The proposed Bill will set out a legal framework whereby an employer can either approve or reject a request to work remotely from an employee.

‘Change the culture’

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy has said the Government must give workers a legal right to work remotely, “not merely the right to request flexible working arrangements”.

She said the Government’s plan “does not go far enough” and “The default position should be that flexible working is permissible. It should not be at the whim of employers to accept it or reject it.”

Labour’s employment spokeswoman Senator Maire Sherlock has criticised the Government for not moving quicker to address the issue of people returning to the workplace and called for legislation that guarantees the right to flexible work.

Sinn Féin’s spokeswoman on Enterprise Louise O’Reilly said the planned legislation should be “more robust” and that no reasonable request from an employees should be refused.

She acknowledged that not all requests can be granted because not all work can be done remotely but said: “the emphasis should be on the right to have it rather than the right to ask for it”.

Mr Varadkar said there was a lot of work done with the Attorney General and “Government can only interfere in contracts that employers and employees have signed to a certain extent.”

He also pointed out that remote working isn’t always going to be possible – pointing to education, healthcare, manufacturing and hospitality as examples.

Mr Varadkar said: “What we want to do is get to a position whereby remote working/home working becomes a choice and that employers facilitate that provided the business gets done and provided public services don’t suffer.”

He said that the Government does not want things to go back to the old normal for working arrangements post-pandemic.

“We want to see more remote working, more home working, more hybrid working”.

Mr Varadkar said he believes the legislation can “change the culture” and that employers will embrace it.

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Travel agents experiencing increase in bookings since Covid-19 restrictions eased

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Travel agents are experiencing an increase in inquires and bookings since the government announced the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions on Friday.

Pat Dawson, CEO of the Irish Travel Agents Association, says there has been a “phenomenal” turn around in bookings, and travel agents are busy getting back to inquiries.

“We are looking at a healthy summer season, it’s the first time I’ve been positive in two years.”

He advised people to book their holidays early to avoid disappointment. “The longer you leave it, the dearer it will get. Mid-term break in February and Easter are almost full.”

Mr Dawson believes there is a pent-up demand. “There are some people who have money they haven’t spent, a big chunk of that will be spent on foreign holidays.”

John Spollen, director of Cassidy Travel in Dublin, says he has seen an increase in bookings over the weekend.

Popular destinations include Spain and Portugal, which have been Irish favourites for many years now, says Mr Spollen. There are also some bookings for the US, Jersey, Madeira and the Greek islands.

Peak travel

People should avoid peak travel times from mid June to the end of August and consider booking mid-week, early or late flights to get the best value, according to Mr Spollen.

“In May, September and October, the weather will be similar to summer weather.”

Mr Spollen added people should take out travel insurance and ensure their passport and driver’s licence are in date.

Michael Doorley of Shandon Travel in Cork said they have seen a huge increase in inquiries.

“We are not back to 2019 levels yet… the EU is a big destination. We have had a lot of inquires about mobile home holiday parks. Italy would be the most popular destination for this type of holiday, but Croatia is becoming almost as popular.”

There are also bookings for America coming in, as well as some couples celebrating their honeymoons belatedly, according to Mr Doorley.

It is important that people understand the restrictions in the country they are travelling to, he added, and they should check the Department of Foreign Affairs website regularly.

Aoife O’Donoghue is just one of the many Irish people who have not been on a holiday abroad in two years, and she is excited to be going to Barcelona at the end of March.

“A friend is moving over there in February, so myself and two other girls are going to visit her. It’s actually all our birthdays that weekend too,” she says.

The friends used to live together in Galway, and Ms O’Donoghue says it’s fantastic to have something to look forward to again.

The last time she went abroad was to Switzerland in January 2020. “Just as we were coming back there was news of the big Covid outbreak in Italy, so felt lucky to have gotten a holiday in before it all kicked off.”

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Property group clashes with council over Dundrum residential development

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The owners of Dundrum Town Centre have clashed with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown council over demands for more large apartments as they advance fast-track plans for a major residential development in the south Dublin village.

Property group Hammerson and insurer Allianz, which operate the new shopping complex in the area, have been in talks with An Bord Pleanála to build up to 889 apartments on the site of the old Dundrum shopping centre.

Their company, Dundrum Retail Ltd Partnership, has told the council it should scrap new requirements for “a minimum of three-plus bedroom units” in large apartment blocks that are included among proposed amendments to its draft county development plan.

In a submission last week to the council, the company said the new guidelines were in conflict with official rules that said there should be no minimum requirement for apartments with three or more bedrooms.

According to the company, the justification for the guidelines was based on fast-track strategic housing development permissions in the council area and “evidence” from certain boroughs in London.

“[Dundrum Retail Ltd Partnership] submit that the logic underpinning the policy is flawed and is not a basis for imposing prescriptive unit mix ratios on a countywide basis,” it said.

“The draft development plan needs to be amended to remove the very prescriptive requirement for apartments with three or more bedrooms and to allow applicants to make the case for a particular unit mix based on the particular attributes of local areas where a different mix might be appropriate.”

The company also told the council that proposed amendments to the development plan presented “contradictory or ambiguous objectives” in relation to proposals for a community, cultural and civic centre in the area.

Such objections were included among 106 submissions on the draft plan in a public consultation which closed last week. Numerous other developers and the Irish Home Builders Association lobby group also opposed the measures, some saying they would delay or prevent the delivery of new homes.

Asked about the submissions, the council said the response to any issues raised would be set out in a report by its chief executive to elected members which would be published. “It will be a decision of the elected members to adopt the plan and it is anticipated that this will take place in early March 2022. The plan will then come into effect six weeks later,” the council said.

Cost increase

In its submission, the Irish Home Builders Association said its members were concerned that the introduction of “further onerous standards” would increase the cost of delivering new homes and their price.

“This at a time when construction costs are already under huge inflationary pressure and affordability is a major issues for most home buyers,” said James Benson, director of the association.

“A key concern of the home-building sector in respect of the new plan is a lack of consistency with national planning guidelines/standards, which may be considered to be contrary to recent Government policy which sought to bring a greater extent of standardisation to national planning standards.”

The submission added: “The key concerns relate to the locational restriction and unit mix requirements for [build-to-rent] schemes, other standards for apartment developments which are more onerous/restrictive than the Government’s… guidelines, and the requirement for early delivery of childcare facilities in residential developments, all of which have the potential to impact adversely on the viability and affordability of housing in the county.”

Another builder, Park Developments, said in a submission the draft sought “more onerous policies, objectives and standards” that would have a direct effect on housing supply. “We are already seeing the impact of the chronic shortage in the supply of housing on the affordability of rental accommodation and homeownership.”

Castlethorn Construction said the blanket imposition of three-bedroom requirements “can only serve to militate against development of apartments” in the council area. It said the cost of delivering three-bed apartments was “very significant”, adding that demand was “not evident by reference to market sentiment, estate agents’ advice” and national policy imperatives.

Developer Hines, which has major interests in the Cherrywood strategic development zone, said in its submission that the logic underpinning requirements for more three-bedroom units was flawed.

“While making the case that recent development has been weighted towards one- and two-bed units, it fails to recognise that three-bed semi-detached and detached houses remain the predominant typology within [Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown] and that the [strategic housing development] permissions provide a much-needed mix of housing types within the county to redress this balance within the county.”


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