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Drought-struck Spain is running out of water

Spain is running out of water. After a long and painful drought, the country has been hit by an unusually early heat wave, evaporating even more of the “blue gold” it still has left in its reservoirs. While farmers fear for their survival, environmentalists say it is time for “Europe’s back garden” to rethink how it uses and manages its increasingly scarce water supply.   

There’s an expression in Spain: “En Abril, aguas mil  April will bring the rains. Only this year, it didn’t. The month of April was the driest month on record, and several Spanish cities registered their highest April temperatures yet. In Cordoba, the mercury rose to 38.7°C (almost 102°F) at one point, and in the province of Seville in Andalusia to 37.8°C.

Coming on the heels of a long-term drought and an unusually warm and dry winter, the latest heat wave has sparked a real fear of shortages. 

“The situation is particularly alarming in the regions of Catalonia and Andalusia, where the water reservoirs are at less than 25 percent of their capacity,” said Jorge Olcina, head of the climatology laboratory at the University of Alicante. Both regions imposed water restrictions at the end of February, meaning inhabitants were no longer allowed to water their gardens or fill their swimming pools. Farmers were also asked to reduce irrigation.

Thousands of inhabitants in the Andalusian village of Jaen even went so far as to organise an “El Abuelo” procession to beg for rain on May 1, bringing out their Christ statue to reinforce their prayers. It was the first time the statue had been brought out of the church basement since 1949. 

“And the rest of Spain is not out of danger. The state of the reserves is increasingly worrisome in the regions of Valencia, Murcia, Castile-La Mancha and Extremadura. The available water stock has gone below 40 percent of total capacity,” Olcina continued. 

Serge Zaka, an agroclimatology specialist, described Spain as being in “a mega-drought situation”, bearing the brunt of the effects of the drought in the summer of 2022 and then the dry winter that followed. “The [current] state of the soil and water reserves generally corresponds to what we usually see in August. This is totally unprecedented,” he said.

Europe’s back garden in peril?

Spain is known as “Europe’s back garden” because it exports a large part of its agricultural production, and Spanish farmers are, unsurprisingly, among the first to suffer the consequences of a water shortage.

According to COAG, which coordinates farming and ranching groups and is one of the country’s main farming unions, 60 percent of Spain’s non-irrigated cereal crops have “asphyxiated” due to lack of rain.

“These are cereals planted in the fall and harvested in the spring, like wheat and barley,” Zaka explained. “But because of the lack of water, their development was interrupted before they could reach maturity. And so it won’t be possible to harvest them.”   

“The cultivation of olive, pistachio and almond trees is also likely to decline,” he said. “Because even if these plants are used to dry climates, they are suffering from the hotter-than-normal temperatures.”

Delaying planting certain crops offers farmers one option for combating the drought, but it comes with inherent risks. 

“As for fruits and vegetables – for those grown on smaller farms that don’t irrigate – farmers try to postpone their sowing periods for as long as possible, waiting for better conditions. But the more the time passes, the more they risk missing the season altogether,” Zaka said.

“The huge irrigated crop fields in southern Spain might not be as hard-hit, but with the lack of water and the restrictions that have been put in place, the farmers running them will have to lower their returns,” he added. 

In short: only crops that grow close to the coastline, and are watered with water from desalination plants, are expected to make it through this dry spell.

The water crisis has prompted the Spanish government to announce a series of measures to help farmers, including a 25 percent income tax reduction for some 800,000 of them.

The limits of intensive use

Environmentalists say it is not only the hotter and drier climate that is to blame for Spain’s water crisis – Spanish farming practices are part of the problem, too.

“This drought shows us the limits of the Spanish agricultural model, which is based on the false impression that we have an abundance of water,” said Julio Barea, responsible for water issues at Greenpeace Spain. Today, the Spanish farming sector accounts for as much as 80 percent of the country’s fresh water consumption.

Since the 1950s, Spain has installed hundreds of dams and water diversion systems to respond to its recurring water shortages. In all, the country now has around 1,200 artificial dams and reservoirs – more than any other country in Europe. Most of them can be found in the southern half of Spain, supplying mainly intensive agricultural sites, but also smaller farms and tourism activities. 

“This infrastructure has led us to draw again and again, without any moderation, from our reserves to support an agricultural model based on irrigation that has earned us the name ‘Europe’s back garden’,” he said. “But at what cost? We have placed our water tables in a state of hydric stress. Today, also taking into account the increasingly visible consequences of global warming, this model is no longer sustainable.”


Patricio Garcia-Fayos, director of the Desertification Research Centre in Valencia, said that climate change, coupled with the overexploitation of groundwater, is accelerating “the desertification of Spain”.

“It’s essential to fight against climate change and at the same time learn how to manage our water better. Otherwise, a large part of Spain will be a desert in a few years.”

The United Nations has already sounded the alarm on Spain’s growing water scarcity, estimating that almost 75 percent of the country is already in the process of desertification.

Desertification also increases the risk of wildfire, as dried vegetation is ideal combustible material. Last year, Spain suffered the largest number of wildfires in Europe, recording more than 500, with over 300,000 hectares going up in flames, according to the European Forest Fire Information System.

This year, some 40,000 hectares have already been eaten up by flames, fuelled by the higher temperatures, the drier soils and the hotter winds. Spain’s State Meteorological Agency has already issued a warning of “extreme risk of fire” for a large part of the country.

New water mindset

Seeing the crisis Spain is currently facing, most experts have come to the same conclusion: “We urgently need to adapt to this new, more arid climate, and totally rethink our water management system,” said Olcina of the University of Alicante.

“Building more water reservoirs no longer makes sense: We have no more water to put in the reserves,” he said. “Instead, we have to develop new ways to use water, such as by reusing wastewater. But above all, we need to use water more thoughtfully.” 

Barea, of Greenpeace, agreed. “Let’s reduce the irrigated areas,” he said. “We have to stop feeding into the illusion and using water that doesn’t exist.”

This piece has been translated from the original in French. 


This story originally appeared on France24

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