Spain relies on an extensive network of dams to supply water to its cities and farms.

Facing a historic drought and threatened by desertification, Spain is rethinking how it uses up 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 of Environmental Transition, Teresa Ribera, said recently of the impact of the lack of rain.

Like France and Italy, Spain has been gripped by several extreme heat waves this summer after an unusually dry winter.

That left the country’s reservoirs at 40.4 percent of capacity in August, 20 percentage points below the decade-long average for this time of year.

Authorities responded by restricting water use, particularly in the southern region of Andalusia, where much of Europe’s fruit and vegetables are grown.

Reservoir water levels in the region are particularly low, only 25 percent of most of their capacity.

“The situation is dramatic,” said University of Jaén hydrology professor Rosario Jimenez, adding that both underground aquifers and surface water bodies are being depleted.

The situation is particularly worrying because it is part of a long-term trend related to climate change, she added.

Parts of Spain are the driest 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 susceptible to desertification.

Spain's reservoirs are at 40.4 percent of capacity in August

Spain’s reservoirs are at 40.4 percent of capacity in August.


Spain has built a vast network of dams to provide water for its farms and cities.

In the 20th century, 1,200 large dams were built in the country, the highest number in Europe per capita.

This allowed Spain to increase the amount of irrigated land at its disposal from 900,000 hectares (2,224,000 acres) to 3,400,000 hectares, according to the website of the environmental transition ministry, which calls the country’s water management system “an example for success”.

But many experts say the system is already showing its limits.

The dams “had a benefit” but also encouraged the “over-exploitation” of water and the deterioration of its quality by blocking the natural flow of rivers, said Julio Barea, a water expert at Greenpeace Spain.

For the scientific council of the Rhône-Mediterranean Basin Committee, a French body that brings together hydrology specialists, Spain is approaching the “physical limits” of its water management model.

Spain’s network of dams relies on enough rainfall to fill its many reservoirs, he said.

Over 80 percent of Spain's water resources are used by agriculture

Over 80 percent of Spain’s water resources are used by agriculture.

But “climate changes that are already underway and will continue in the coming decades will increase the risk of failures,” the body said in a recent report.

Experts say the way Spain uses water is also a major problem.

“Consumption has not stopped increasing while water is becoming scarcer. This is an aberration,” Barea said.

“vegetable garden of Europe”

Spain is the second most visited country in the world and significant amounts of water are used in tourism infrastructure such as swimming pools and golf courses.

But agriculture absorbs the majority—more than 80 percent—of the country’s water resources.

It is sometimes used to grow crops that are not suitable for dry climates – such as strawberries or avocados – for export to other European countries.

Irrigation use in Spain “is irrational,” said Julia Martinez, a biologist and director of the FNCA Water Conservation Foundation.

Greenpeace estimates that 75 percent of the country is susceptible to desertification

Greenpeace estimates that 75 percent of Spain is susceptible to desertification.

“We cannot be the vegetable garden of Europe” while “there is a shortage of water for residents,” she added.

The government of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez adopted a strategic plan last month to adapt Spain’s water management system to the “impacts of global warming”.

It includes measures to promote water recycling and the “efficient and rational” use of resources.

But experts say reforms remain timid, with many regions continuing to increase the amount of land irrigated.

“We need more drastic measures,” said Barea, who called for restructuring the agricultural system.

Martínez echoes this sentiment, saying that Spain is currently the European nation “that puts the most pressure on its water resources.”

“There are decisions today that no one wants to make. We cannot continue to move forward blindly,” she said.

Drought threatens Spain’s ‘green gold’ crop

© 2022 AFP

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