Faced with a historic drought and the threat of desertification, Spain is rethinking how it spends its water resources, which are mainly used to irrigate crops.
“We have to be extremely careful and responsible instead of looking the other way,” Spain’s Minister for Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera, said recently of the impact of the lack of rain.
Like France and Italy, Spain has been hit by several extreme heat waves this summer after an unusually dry winter.
That put the country’s reservoirs at 40.4 percent of their capacity in August, 20 percentage points below the last decade’s average for that time of year.
Officials have responded by restricting water use, particularly in the southern region of Andalucia, where much of Europe’s fruit and vegetables are grown.
The water level of the reservoirs in the region is particularly low, at most 25 percent of its capacity.
“The situation is dramatic,” said Rosario Jimenez, a professor of hydrology at the University of Jaen, adding that both underground aquifers and surface water were running out.
The situation is particularly worrying as it is part of a long-term trend related to climate change, she added.
Parts of Spain are drier than they have been in a thousand years due to a high-pressure atmospheric system driven by climate change, according to a study published last month in the journal Nature Geoscience.
Greenpeace estimates that 75 percent of the country is vulnerable to desertification.
– “Overexploitation” –
Spain has built a vast network of dams to bring water to its farms and cities.
During the 20th century, 1,200 large dams were built in the country, the highest number in Europe per capita.
This has allowed Spain to increase the amount of irrigated land it has from 900,000 hectares (2,224,000 acres) to 3,400,000 hectares, according to the Department of Ecological Transition’s website, which describes the country’s water management system as a “best practice.” ” designated.
But many experts say the system is now showing its limitations.
The dams “had their uses” but they have also encouraged “overexploitation” of the water and the decline in its quality by blocking the natural flow of the river, said Julio Barea, water expert at Greenpeace Spain.
For the scientific advice of the Rhône-Mediterranean Basin Committee, a French body bringing together hydrology specialists, Spain is nearing the “physical limits” of its water management model.
Spain’s dam network relies on sufficient rainfall to refill its many reservoirs, sources said.
But “climate changes already underway and set to continue in the coming decades will increase the risk of outages,” the panel said in a recent report.
Experts say the way Spain uses water is also a big problem.
“Consumption has not stopped increasing while water is becoming increasingly scarce. It’s an aberration,” Barea said.
– “Europe’s vegetable garden” –
Spain is the second most visited country in the world and significant amounts of water are used in tourism infrastructures such as swimming pools and golf courses.
But agriculture consumes the majority — over 80 percent — of the country’s water resources.
It’s sometimes used to grow crops that aren’t suited to arid climates – like strawberries or avocados – for export to other European countries.
Spain’s use of irrigation “is irrational,” said Julia Martinez, biologist and director of the FNCA Water Conservation Foundation.
“We cannot be Europe’s vegetable garden” as long as “there is a water shortage for residents,” she added.
Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s government last month approved a strategic plan to adapt Spain’s water management system to “the effects of global warming”.
It includes measures to promote water recycling and the “efficient and rational” use of resources.
But experts say reforms remain tentative as many regions continue to increase the amount of irrigated land.
“We need more drastic measures,” said Barea, who called for a restructuring of the agricultural system.
Martinez shares this view, saying Spain is currently the European nation “putting the most pressure on its water resources”.
“Today there are decisions that no one wants to make. We cannot continue to proceed blindly,” she said.
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