MADRID (Reuters) - Spain's capacity to generate hydroelectricity and irrigate crops has risen in the past week, the latest official data show, but levels are still far below average in a country that depends heavily on imports of grain and gas.
Reservoirs held enough water to produce 8,571 gigawatt-hours of hydropower, according to the Ministry for the Environment and Rural Affairs, or 202 GWh more than a week ago.
That compares to typical demand of 740 GWh on a working day at this time of year and is 86.3 percent of the average available over the past 10 years.
Hydroelectric output so far this year in Spain has fallen by 20.1 percent from the same period in 2007, data from national grid operator REE show, after long periods of drought which prompted the city of Barcelona to import water by sea.
Gas-powered generators have helped fill the gap by boosting production 35.4 percent, and in consequence gas distributor Enagas forecasts demand in Spain will rise this year by 10-12 percent to 43.5 billion cubic meters.
Spain imports more than 99 percent of its gas and is the world's third largest buyer of liquefied natural gas via six regasification plants. Its main supplier is Algeria.
IRRIGATION LEVELS RISE
The Ministry logged rainfall of 3.1 millimeters in the week to December 21, or just 19 percent of the historical (1930-96) average.
Even so, reservoirs for consumption -- including farm use -- rose to 41.1 percent of capacity from 40.5 percent a week ago, although that was just 49.3 percent of the 10-year-average.
Crops like maize need irrigation to grow in Spain's harsh climate and the country can never grow enough grain to meet its needs, particularly from an intensive livestock sector.
Last year, Spain imported more than 12.2 million tonnes of grain, but traders say this may fall to 7.5 million in the market year which began in July due to a crisis amongst livestock farmers.
The current maize harvest is behind schedule but not in doubt, although farmers have said they may sow less wheat and barley this winter due to low water levels, tumbling prices and higher costs.
Other important irrigated crops in Spain include cotton and alfalfa, which is an ingredient in animal feed.
(Reporting by Martin Roberts; editing by James Jukwey)