Spanish freeze lays bare conditions in one of Europe’s biggest shanty towns

Some 14km from Madrid lies one of Europe’s biggest shanty towns, where this week as many as 3,000 people endured the coldest temperatures since the second world war without heat or light. 

The inhabitants of sector six of the illegal settlement known as La Cañada Real Galiana have been without electricity since early October — around 100 days. 

In a week when conditions dived below minus 13 degrees centigrade — the lowest for the region since 1945 — their plight is stark.

“Being in our houses is like being on the street . . . I daren’t look at the temperature, but when my feet are frozen I know it is very cold,” said Sara Benayad, a 26-year-old of Moroccan origin who has lived in the neighbourhood since she was 10. “We have no heat, the water has frozen up, and the fridge has not been on for four months.”

She and her husband have been unable to work at a local waste recycling facility for weeks, and their two-year-old was briefly hospitalised for respiratory problems. “I can’t go to work thinking of my child freezing at home,” she said. “We are in the middle of a pandemic and the middle of winter . . . This is what we are going through, in Europe, in the 21st century, in the heart of Spain.”

Cañada Real is unfinished business for 21st-century Spain, a problem that for decades the authorities have been incapable of resolving — or even defining. For many, it is a place synonymous with drug dealing and addiction, Madrid’s narcotics supermarket, where dealers and junkies coexist in squalid shack-lined streets in sector six that police fear to tread. 

For others it is testimony to social injustice and the huge gaps in Spain’s economic model and welfare state.

The problems have come to a head with this winter’s three-month long power outage for sector six, which the regional government and the electricity provider blame on massive and growing demand by illicit indoor marijuana plantations, but which residents see as an attempt to force them out.

“The usage is so huge that they don’t even want to pay the bills,” said Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the head of Madrid’s regional government, last month. “They are fine with parking their Porsches there, but not with paying their bills, which is what is provoking these power cuts.”

Volunteers hand out food packages during in sector 6 of La Cañada Real Galiana © Jaime Alekos/AFP/Getty

But residents like Ms Benayad maintain they are unable to get electricity contracts. “We want to pay for the electricity,” she said. “But they won’t even put in a meter.” For many, the problem resides in the unresolved status of Cañada Real — a land without property rights where much of the paperwork of day to day life is simply impossible.

The 14km long territory to the south-east of Madrid is an old cattle herding road — which made it public land, even as its original purpose faded into history. 

As the Spanish economy modernised from the 1960s on, economic migrants from the impoverished countryside of Andalucía and Extremadura piled into the area, building houses on land for which they had no title — just as shantytowns expanded in regions such as Latin America and Turkey around the same time.

Cañada Real accelerated its growth after Spain’s return to democracy in the 1970s, becoming what it is today — an area where settlements range from comfortable houses, some of whose owners have managed to regularise their status, to squalor and deprivation elsewhere. Until October, the buzz of electricity echoed throughout the territory, set off by the illicit connections residents have thrown up over the years.

Overall, according to official data — widely thought to be an underestimate — some 7,300 people live in Cañada Real. There are around 3,000 in sector six, the poorest and most populous area, where many inhabitants are of Moroccan, Roma or Romanian origin. Generally one in three inhabitants is a child — sector six is home to 1,200 children.

Even before the electricity dispute, conditions in the sector caused international outcry. Philip Alston, then UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, wrote a year ago of his “shock . . . at the extent to which the relevant governments appear to have abandoned the people living there”.

He added: “In Cañada Real, I met people living without a clinic, employment centre, school, or even legal electricity, on an unpaved road, directly adjacent to incinerators, in an area deemed hazardous to human health.”

But now, more than three months into the electricity outage, things are worse still. On December 22, nine UN human rights rapporteurs called on the government to immediately restore electricity. “Children . . . are truly suffering and their health is at risk.” 

Butane canisters and heaters have been distributed in the area, but some residents refused them, saying electricity was what was needed © Jaime Alekos/AFP/Getty

Lidia Ortega, a family doctor in the area, says there have been more than 40 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning because of the use of wood, gas or petrol stoves as alternative sources of heat, and that the cold puts newborns at risk. And then there is the pandemic. “The outages make social distancing impossible,” she said “People have to gather around what few sources of heat there are.”

Pablo Iglesias, Spain’s radical left deputy prime minister, has demanded that Naturgy, the utility for the area, restore electricity as soon as possible. 

But the power group says it has had to contend with an enormous number of illegal and often highly unsafe electricity connections. In the whole of sector six, and the adjacent sector five, it says, there are just four legitimate contract holders — for 1,500 households who consume the equivalent of 10,000 households.

The company says demand in sector six is so high that automatic circuit breakers are triggered whenever the power is turned back on. 

Raúl Suárez, head of Naturgy’s electricity distribution arm, argues that calls for a boost in the power supply to the neighbourhood cannot safely be met because of the improvised electrical connections. “The risk of fires and electrocution could lead to an even greater tragedy,” he said, adding that the power cuts are a symptom of “root causes” that go back decades. 

Naturgy’s critics say it could do more to cut off marijuana plantations while restoring families’ power supplies, but the group maintains it needs prior authorisations for such actions. 

This week, it and the regional government sought to distribute around 200 butane canisters and heaters to the area, but in response residents threw up barricades and threw stones.

“We decided to refuse these heaters, even though we need them, because what we want is electricity for our homes,” Ms Benayad said. “If they think this isn’t a fit place to live, then take us somewhere else, but leaving us and our families unprotected and without electricity just isn’t the solution.”

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