Spain's government on Friday unveiled new measures to relieve the impact of the driest winter in memory, including diverting water between regions to ensure supplies to 2.5 million people in the parched southeast.

Spain unveils more drought relief measures
In addition to human consumption, Spain depends on water to irrigate crops and cut its heavy dependence on imported grain, as well as to boost hydroelectric output amid an official drive to promote renewable energy.

A statement issued after a weekly cabinet meeting said the Mediterranean coast as a whole had suffered the driest autumn and winter on record, but the government said the population was not at risk.

"Citizens can rest easy that water supplies will be firmly ensured," Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega told journalists after the cabinet meeting.

The cabinet agreed to allow 39 cubic hectometres to be diverted from the Tagus river basin in the north and west of Spain to the basin of the Segura, which flows into the Mediterranean on the southeast coast.

The Tagus flows through one of Spain's leading grain-producing regions, Castilla-Leon, while the Segura supplies Murcia, known as "the garden of Spain" for its horticulture.

Second Time

It was the second time this year that the cabinet had taken steps to alleviate the drought. In February the government decided to choke outflow from dams and switch water between regions.

In some regions of Spain, restrictions on water use have been in force for the past four years.

Spain depends on hefty grain imports, even a bumper harvest last year, mainly to make animal feed, but also bread and other foods like breakfast cereal.

Farmers planted six percent more land to barley and wheat this winter, due to new European Union regulations, but are not hopeful for the harvest due to the persistent drought.

Some have said they may plant less maize this spring. Maize needs irrigating to grow in Spain and reservoirs for consumption, including agricultural use are just 44.1 percent full, down from 51.5 percent a year ago.

The cabinet said that to irrigate crops in Murcia, "it is necessary to wait for whatever rain may fall in the spring before attending to other needs," as its priority was human consumption.

The drought has also undermined hydrolectric output, as reservoirs set aside for Spain's power stations are down to 54.5 percent of capapcity from 77.1 percent this time last year.

As a share of Spain's total electricity demand, hydroelectric turbines provided 5.1 percent in the first two months of 2008, down from an average of 12 percent in a wet year.