NewsDrought and heat in Spain can cause massive water...

Drought and heat in Spain can cause massive water cuts

Spain and other European countries are experiencing much higher temperatures than normal, with effects on their water reserves, water supply and also on economic and social activity.

Last July was one of the three warmest on record, with about 0.4 ºC above the reference period from 1991 to 2020, only surpassed by the same month in 2019 and 2016, according to a statement from the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), implemented by the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), on behalf of the European Commission and with funding from the European Union.

Records of maximum temperatures for a month of July and of all times were broken in relation to this value.

In the Iberian Peninsula an unusually high number of days with maximum temperatures above 35 ºC was recorded.

In addition, megafires proliferate, fueled by high temperatures, such as those recorded in the autonomous community of Galicia, in the north of the country.

Suffocated by a historic drought, and under the growing threat of desertification, Spain is questioning how it should manage its water resources, which until now are mostly used to irrigate agricultural land.

Here’s what we know about potential water outages.

Water restrictions in Spain

Given the lack of rainfall, “we must be extremely careful and responsible instead of looking the other way,” the Spanish Minister for Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera, recently warned, anticipating the arrival of “episodes of maximum tension.”

Like France or Italy, the Iberian Peninsula is experiencing waves of extreme heat this summer, after a very dry winter. Spanish water reserves fell to 40.4% of their capacity at the beginning of August, 20 points below the average for this time in the last ten years.

To attack the problem, the government of the socialist Pedro Sánchez adopted a strategic plan in July that seeks to “adapt the existing management system to the impacts of climate change and increase the resilience of the system”, with measures that promote “reuse” and a efficient and rational use of resources.

Most affected areas

The authorities have had to take urgent measures to limit water consumption, in regions such as Catalonia (northeast) or Andalusia (south), where the level of reserves does not exceed 25% in the Guadalquivir basin, which irrigates the entire region.

“The situation now is absolutely dramatic,” both for “surface water” and for “aquifers,” says Rosario Jiménez, professor of Hydrology at the University of Jaén, in Andalusia. A situation that is even more worrying since it derives from a general context of climate change.

Heat and restrictions could get worse

In Spain, however, the lack of water is nothing new. The country even became a model of adaptation to irregular rainfall, thanks to its transfers of water between hydrographic basins and its numerous reservoirs, built to guarantee the supply of cities and agricultural areas.

Throughout the 20th century, 1,200 large dams were built, a European record when compared to the number of inhabitants. Spain went from 900,000 to 3,400,000 hectares of irrigated land, according to the Ministry of Ecological Transition on its website, where it states that “Spain’s water governance system is an example of success.”

But for many experts, this structure is already showing its limits. The reservoirs “have served”, but they have also “favored the “overexploitation” of water and a decline in its quality, by modifying the natural course of the rivers and their regeneration, according to Julio Barea, campaign manager for Greenpeace Spain.

For the Rhône-Mediterranean Basin Scientific Council, a French body that brings together hydrology specialists, “the Spanish model” is only supported “to the extent that water resources are sufficiently available” to allow reservoirs to be filled.

And now “it seems that these physical limits are close”, according to estimates in a report. “Climate changes already underway, and which will continue in the coming decades, will accentuate the risk of problems, the severity of which may also be due to the limited possibilities of adaptation” of the current model.

Specialists consider, however, that progress is still timid, while several regions continue to bet on increasing their irrigated land. “We have to restructure the agricultural system of our country,” asks Julio Barea.

A vision shared by Julia Martínez, who recalls that “Spain is the country in Europe that is putting the most pressure on its water resources.”

“There are decisions now that nobody wants to face. But we cannot continue with this flight forward,” he warns.

With information from AFP and EFE

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