Friday, September 30, 2011

The Role of Water in the Decision to Emigrate from Lanzarote To San Antonio

A few years ago, I went to the excellent museum of emigration here in Lanzarote , and was struck by fact that San Antonio in Texas was founded by Canarians, lead by Lanzaroteans. It made me consider the reasons for the poverty which drove the islanders to such a hazardous venture. My hobby of walking the byways of the island revealed sights that made me realise that chief among them was lack of water. So I decided to write this article to show, from the existing evidence, what a hard life the inhabitants of this beautiful, but hostile, island lived around the time of the exodus of the sixteen families. The photographs are ones I have taken over the last two years, at various times of year, so in some, the land can look green – but that only lasts from January to March. Several of my walking group members figure in some of the photographs, giving a human scale to the views.


Lanzarote is a very barren island, with little natural vegetation (Illustration 1). This is because it is hot – on almost the same latitude as San Antonio - dominated by bare rock and sand blown over from the Sahara, and is mainly low lying, so doesn't cause clouds to shed their load of rain. In consequence, there are no rivers – other than short lived torrents after the occasional rain - and no surface water.
1. The Ajache Mountains and Papagayo desert

Lanzarote has roughly one tenth the rainfall of San Antonio. Before the Hispanic conquest in the early 15th century, a tiny population eked out an existence with a few crops, and herds of goats. From then, with the arrival of Spanish technologies, the population grew until it reached about 17,000 towards the end of the 19th century, and there it stuck. Several attempts were then made to improve water supplies, by tunneling into the Famara Massive, the only significant area of high ground, where the cliffs, reaching nearly 2000, feet did precipitate water from the clouds (Illustration 2), and the rainfall was sufficient to allow successful farming around the town of Haria.
2. By contrast, the fertile Famara Cliffs in January. La Graciosa in the distance.

However, the major source of water was that brought in from other islands, firstly as ship's ballast, then eventually, as a commercial venture. Still, the short supply kept the population down, especially in the countryside, although the new capital, Arrecife, grew.

The whole position changed in the early 1960s, with the arrival of reverse osmosis sea water filtration for drinking water, and now the whole island is supplied by several plants dotted around the coast. The water in the coffee on my desk as I write, started off in the sea nearby! This system coincided with, and allowed, the advent of mass tourism to the island, and now the permanent population is a six figure number – although estimates vary greatly.

Farming over the Centuries

When the Canary Islands became a Spanish territory, the Crown, and government recognised that there was a need for the islands to generate an income, as well as to feed themselves, so over the centuries, various crops have been tried, including potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco and bananas. Whilst these thrived on the more westerly islands, the dryness of Lanzarote (and Fuerteventura) meant that none really succeeded. Ironically, in the 19th century, the harvesting of Cochineal beetles to produce a red dye was successful, and there are still large areas covered by the prickly pear cactus on which the beetles were reared (Illustration 3). However, the development of synthetic dyes towards the end of the century killed that trade off.
3. Pricky Pear and (unfortunately) squashed Cochineal Beetle
So, despite their best efforts, the life of the average Lanzarotean was one of scratching a living growing a few cereals, figs and vegetables using whatever water he could find. This made them incredibly tough and determined, working long hours on rocky hillsides, building and maintaining terraced strips of vegetation, or herding huge flocks of goats. Despite the best efforts of the Spanish, the situation remained difficult, especially in periods of drought lasting several years. Such conditions existed at the beginning of the 18th Century, and I suspect that the most significant driving factor to the emigration of the 16 families and the creation of San Antonio, was the need to escape from such a life, to somewhere with more water. Certainly, the despair at home, and the steely determination to survive at all costs, would explain how these families went on a voyage into the unknown, and had the drive to found a new city in a strange land. The rainfall in their new home must have seemed miraculous to people who had never seen a river!

"Cuando se ha nacido en un país como este es cuando se puede apreciar el agua en su justo valor. Lanzarote, mas que las otras islas, está mal dotado desde este punto de vista. No tiene ni un arroyo, ni una fuente, ni un pozo, aparte de aquellos que sirven para recoger el agua de la lluvia
(...) cuando llueve ¡con qué cuidado se recoge el agua! Las más mínimas depresiones, son transformadas en canales que llevan el precioso líquidoa los estanques o aljibes. Para impedir su evaporación se recubren conpiedras o, simplemente con ramas y malezas" VERNEAU, Rene: "Cinco años de estancia en las Islas Canarias". Ediciones JADL. 1981,p.106.

My rough translation of this is "When you are born in a country like this water shows its true value. Lanzarote, unlike the other islands, is badly endowed from this point of view. It has neither a river nor a source or a well, other than those used to collect rainwater (...) When it rains how carefully the water is collected! The smallest depressions are transformed into channels that carry the precious liquid to the ponds or tanks. To prevent evaporation they are coated with stones, or simply with branches and weeds "


Over the last couple of years, I've walked around the island, and have been fascinated by the various methods that people in times gone by used to collect water. There are few remains of any great antiquity, but the basic principles remained unchanged over the centuries, so although the materials may have changed, the remnants are pretty representative. In general, they amounted to: catching water from water running off the hills when it did rain, digging wells where it seemed there might be underground sources, and collecting rainwater that fell on roofs and courtyards.

Run-Off Water

By arranging for ditches to be built diagonally on hillsides, feeding large ponds, it was possible to collect run-off water during the winter, rainy months. These ponds were called Maretas, and the largest one in Teguise is described here On many hillsides this was augmented by waterproofing the ground, with clay, and later, lime mortar then cement. Some of these hillsides can still be seen in Lanzarote. Here (Illustration 4) is a fine example of a more recent one on the slopes of Monte Corona in the North.
4.  Large run-off water collector
This concreted area is about 140 feet wide, and stretches 700 feet up the hillside. It is clearly visible on Google Earth at 29°10'38N 13°29'01W. Of course, since Lanzarote is volcanic, there are many extinct volcanoes with craters, and some of these were used as natural water collecting bowls. Here (Illustration 5) is one on the slopes of the Atalaya de Femés, where all the water falling in the crater finds its way to the bottom, which has been cleared of stones, and, although now disused, must have been a fertile field – albeit a hard climb above the village!
5. Fertile old field in crater bottom.
And here is the crater of Montaña Guanapay above Tequise, with Castello Santa Bárbera - the redoubt against Barbary Pirates - on the rim. You can see the remains of a water collection tank in the crater bottom (Illustration 6).
6. Crater of Montaña Guanapay with water tank in bottom
There are still a few wells in Lanzarote which contain water, although these days it would be undrinkable. Several more were lost when the Timanfaya eruptions in the 1730s covered much of the farmland in lava, and others are buried under the advancing sands of the Jable area. The first settlement in the Canaries was at Playa Del Pozo, at Papagayo in the extreme south of the island, enabled by the well which gives the beach its name. There is a bigger well in the Valle del Higuera leading down to the similarly named beach in the nearby Ajaches National Park (Illustration 7).
7. Ancient Well - 30 feet across, 200 feet deep, lined with masonry
A suprising location for wells is at the foot of a volcano, where an impermeable layer of rock meets the surface. Two excellent examples are the one in the little building at the foot of Montaña Negra – a desolate mountain in a field of lava (Illustration 8),
8.Well house at foot of Montaña Negra
and the one in the entrance to the crater of Montaña Calderata (Illustration 9) which, as you can see, allowed a farmer to live in his stone built cottage, now a ruin, inside the crater (Illustration 10).
9. Well in opening to crater of Montaña Calderata
10. And the ruined cottage near the well
The most dramatic example is the well at the top of the Famara Cliffs, nearly 200 feet above sea level (Illustration 11). In days gone by, the men of the waterless offshore Island of La Graciosa used to row across to the “mainland” to sell fish, whilst their women climbed the cliffs with pitchers to fill at this well, before descending the cliffs back to the boats.
11. Well on cliff tops.  The water was carried down to the boats.
Collecting Rainwater

The final method of collecting water was directly from the rain. Every house would have a tank called an Aljibe (from the Arabic al gúbb – a cistern) into which rainwater, collected on roofs and terraces flowed. In some cases, if only the roof was used, it might only cover a few square meters, and collect a few thousand gallons a year – which had to suffice for the family, their crops and their livestock. In other cases, large areas of ground were waterproofed, originally with clay or mortar, but in more recent centuries with concrete. These drained into underground storage tanks, which might collect hundreds of thousands of gallons in a good year.  Here is the inside of an old abandoned aljibe, which someone has decided to renovate.  They have dug out one side, and knocked a hole in the wall for access. Note the arched roof, made entirely of local volcanic stones, with no mortar, and the rendered sides and floor (Illustration 12).
12. Inside a ruined Aljibe
Water for the Goats

Finally, a large part of the livelihood of the island was derived from goat farming. In the mountain ranges, and barren plains of the South, the islanders have always tended large flocks of goats, which manage to live off the scrubby vegetation dotted around the steep valley sides and rocky crags. The forbidding terrain, the dryness and the lack of shelter from the wind and blazing sun meant the goatherd's life was probably more extreme than that of any other workers. These days, large goat farms provide them with additional food, in the form of maize husks, and, importantly, ample supplies of piped-in water. However, in days gone by, it was not practicable to carry water over the tortuous terrain, so it was gathered whenever possible from the watercourses when the rains came, and pumped into tanks, from where it could be rationed out to the livestock. The following pictures show the remains of such a system in a ravine in the slopes of Hache Grande, a dominating mountain in the South (Illustration 13).
13. Water feed for goats in an Ajache ravine
It dates from much later than the 18th Century, as can be seen from the use of cement blocks, and the metal stub on which a wind pump probably ran, but the goatherds in previous centuries would have had to lift and store water in the same locations, using whatever means came to hand. (the backpack is mine, the discarded bottle is not!) The ingenuity needed because of the lack of modern building materials can be judged from the “igloo” shelter on the same site (Illustration 14).
14. Goatherd's hut ( with my walking buddy for scale!)

It has always been clear that desperation drove the emigrants to the Americas. For them to leave their native lands and sail a quarter of the way around the World to an unknown fate must have been daunting. I hope I have given you an idea of what the conditions were like, and how the lack of water was an important factor on their decision to go. Today, I live in the same dry island, but I have no shortage of cheap water, from reverse osmosis of sea water, and I probably use more irrigating my garden than the average 18th century farmer used for his entire farm. My admiration for the strength and determination of the islanders in previous centuries is immense.


  1. well done, very interesting.just back from a holiday there

  2. Thank you for this fascinating article! Reading it at 3am on our first night in Lanzarote. I woke with painful feet feeling very thirsty and decided I was dehydrated! We had been told not to drink the water but had not bought any bottled water due to our late arrival so started researching why we were advised not to drink the water! Actually decided it's okay to drink the water - it just tastes awful - but I enjoyed reading your article while I drank. Will be looking out for the water storage features you highlighted during our car tours of the island! Sadly no longer up to walking tours due to back pain! Thanks again! Barbara Moore, at THe Hotel Mirador Papagayo