No sooner are you off the plane at Alicante's sun-blasted airport than the billboards leap out with ads for paradise: palm-treed seaside villas, sparkling swimming pools and emerald-green golf courses.

But hike inland for half an hour and the bald earth, drying reservoirs and stunted crops tell a different tale.

Although the millions of tourists visiting Spain's coasts this summer may not realize it, much of the country is parched with no oasis in sight. The driest winter and spring in more than 60 years have left reservoirs in some regions with 20 percent of their normal capacity and crops across this agricultural powerhouse wilting. Rivers have lost nearly a third of their volume.

The problem looms even larger as the country debates its options. The conservative opposition Popular Party supports resurrecting a mega-plan for hundreds of dams and pipes to transfer water from the wetter north to the center and south.

The Socialists, backed by most other parties and ecological groups, scrapped that plan as soon as they took power last spring. They insist on a new understanding of water, based on desalination and water banks, better management and less squandering.

Deja vu.

In the 1990s, a five-year drought hit harvests and triggered a bitter conflict among parties and the country's semiautonomous regions over water rights.

Ten years on, little seems to have changed except the party in government.

"We know droughts are cyclical. We should be used to this," said Juan Manuel Pascual Torres, 40, a melon and pepper farmer from the southeastern town of Elche. "But we never seem to learn.

"Right now we're at a critical point. If we don't get substantial rainfall soon, we're in real trouble," he said.

Farmers in his region have been told they can irrigate for a maximum of eight minutes a day and not when and as much as they would choose. Torres doesn't rule out abandoning the land and going back to his old job in a shoe factory.

Losses nationally so far are estimated at about $2 billion in failed crops and fodder for grazing animals. The agricultural ministry predicts grain production will fall 25 percent this year, and as much as 50 percent in worst-hit regions. Orange groves and vineyards, still reeling from last winter's frosts, promise a spartan harvest next fall.

Meanwhile, the threat of summer forest fires looms even bigger than usual.

"If it doesn't rain soon, I'm going to be some 30,000 euros [$36,850] in the red, and I don't know how I'm going to handle that," said Joaquin Bretons, a 41-year-old father of two, gazing helplessly across his stunted chickpea and barley fields outside the southeastern town of Caudete.

Neighboring Portugal is in similar trouble.

Almost 70 percent of the country is in severe or extreme drought, the Meteorological Institute says.

It is especially acute in the southern provinces of Alentejo, a farming region, and Algarve, a coastal vacation area whose population of about 400,000 more than doubles in the summer.

With rainfall since October at its lowest since 1901, "these are very, very difficult times," said Francisco Palma, president of the Alentejo Farmers' Association. "Things have never been this bad."

Back in Madrid, the Spanish government maintains that for the moment there is a rainfall shortage, not a water crisis, and that reserves guarantee there will be no domestic consumption restrictions this summer.

But several regions have had to take measures. Showers on many of the beaches of southeastern Spain have been turned off, water pressure to houses has been eased, and in the hard-hit northeastern province of Huesca, swimming pools have been left empty and lawn-spraying prohibited.

"We have to change our idea of water because there isn't enough water for everything," said Jaime Pallop, director of the Environment Ministry's Water Department. "This is the reality, and it should be apparent to anyone with any intelligence."

"What's important for Spain, as a country, is to accept droughts as a normal occurrence, not a punishment from God or a biblical plague. It's simply a condition of our environment, and this ought to encourage us to manage and live with it. Droughts are part of our culture. Anticipation and prevention are the two recipes."

Public water banks and as many desalination plants as needed are planned, with complementary measures to protect aquifers and forests.

"The sea holds the future for us," Environment Minister Cristina Narbona maintained.

Citrus farmer Juan Manuel Selma is skeptical.

"The problem is not the water but the politicians and their plans," he said. "Only an idiot would let fresh river water run to the sea and then take it back and desalinate it."

Spaniards each use an average of 40 gallons of water daily. Fifty million tourists annually, on top of a Spanish population of 40 million, shoot demand sky-high.

And while Spaniards pay for their water, they like to rinse their dishes under taps running full blast, hose down their cars and water their lawns for hours on end.

"To get wood, we don't have to destroy the forest but rather look after it. It's the same with water," said Pedro Arrojo, whose work in water conservation won him San Francisco's prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2003.

"We must recuperate our rivers and aquifers. That's the new culture of water -- sustainable and prudential."

Tourists enjoy a swimming pool on top of their hotel in Benidorm. For those living in Spain, water is a sore subject this year.A tire lies in an almost empty reservoir near Alicante. The driest winter and spring in 60 years have left some reservoirs at 20 percent of capacity.