Drought in Spain fuels tension over water management

Does the lack of rain crisis in Spain end in a war for water? Faced with a historic drought, Spain wonders about the future of its water resources, a large part of which are dedicated to irrigating agricultural land, while desertification threatens 75% of the country.

Given the lack of rain, Environment Minister Teresa Ribera recently warned that “we must be very careful and responsible instead of closing our eyes” anticipating “periods of extreme stress.”

Like France and Italy in recent months, the Iberian Peninsula has experienced strong heat waves after an unusually dry winter. This caused Spain’s water reserves to fall in early August to 14.4% of its capacity, twenty points less than the average of the last ten years in the same period.

This situation led the authorities to take urgent measures to reduce water consumption, especially in Catalonia and Andalusia (south), where the level of water reservoirs does not exceed 25% compared to 56.5% in the Guadalquivir basin. , which supplies irrigation to the entire region. .

“The situation is dangerous,” said Rosario Jiménez, a hydrology professor at the University of Jaén in Andalusia, noting that the situation is becoming more dangerous as it falls within a general trend that Rosario Jiménez attributes to global warming.

It is clear that water scarcity is not new in Spain, but the country has become a model of adaptation to irregular rainfall, thanks to the transfer of water between detention ponds and the numerous reservoirs enabled to ensure the supply of cities and agricultural land.

In this context, during the 20th century Spain built 1,200 large dams, which is a record figure in Europe in relation to the population. The Ministry of Environmental Transition explains on its website that this “has allowed Spain to increase the irrigated area from 900,000 hectares to 3,400,000 hectares”, considering that “the water management system in Spain is an example of success.”

Today, however, many experts maintain that this system is revealing its limitations. Julio Barria, campaign manager of the Spanish branch of Greenpeace, explained that these dams “had a benefit”, but in exchange “they encouraged the excessive exploitation” of water and the deterioration of its quality, in addition to obstructing the natural course of the rivers and its renewal.

The Scientific Council of the Rhône-Mediterranean Basin, a French body of hydrological experts, considered that the “Spanish model” is feasible “only when the water resources are sufficiently available to fill the retention basins” with water.

However, “it seems that we are close to reaching these physical limits,” he explained in a report, adding that “current climate evolution, which will continue in the coming decades, will increase the risk of tripping, the magnitude of which may also depend on the weak adaptation capacities” of the current model.

Experts believe that the problem is the use of resources in a country where gardens are usually watered in the heat of the day, as is now the case in Madrid. Julio Barria commented expressing his discontent: “Consumption has not stopped increasing, while the water we have at our disposal is increasingly scarce, it makes no sense.”

The reason behind this is the rise of tourism with the construction of infrastructure that consumes water, such as golf courses and swimming pools, but also intensive agriculture, which absorbs more than 80% of water resources to irrigate crops that are sometimes completely Unsuitable for dry weather. , such as strawberries and avocados, and destined for the European market.

“The use of irrigation in Spain is irrational,” said Julia Martínez, technical director of the Nueva Cultura Por el Agua group, which fights for better water management. We may not be the garden of Europe” when “there are cases of water cuts to the population”.

To address the problem of water scarcity, the government approved a strategic plan in mid-July that assumes that the “adopted (water) management system adapts to the effects of climate warming” through measures that promote ” recycling” and an “effective “rational use” of resources.

But experts believe that progress is still limited, while many regions continue to bet on increasing the irrigated area. “We need more drastic measures” including the “restructuring of the agrarian system” in Spain, Julio Barissa underlined.

Her opinion is shared by Julia Martínez, who affirms that “Spain is the European country that exerts the greatest pressure on its water resources”, warning that “there are decisions that nobody wants to make, but we cannot continue with this flight forward”.