Drought forces to rethink the use of water in Spain

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Madrid (AFP) – Faced with a historic drought and threatened by desertification, Spain is rethinking the use of 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 Ecological Transition Minister Teresa Ribera said recently of the impact of the lack of rain.

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

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

Authorities have responded by limiting water use, particularly in the southern region of Andalusia, which produces much of Europe’s fruit and vegetables.

Water levels in reservoirs in the region are particularly low, barely 25% at maximum capacity.

“The situation is dramatic,” said Rosario Jimenez, professor of hydrology at the University of Jaen, adding that underground aquifers and surface water bodies were being depleted.

The situation is all the more worrying as it is part of a long-term trend linked to climate change, she added.

According to a study published last month in the journal Nature Geoscience, parts of Spain are the driest in a thousand years due to a high-pressure atmospheric system driven by climate change.

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

“Overexploitation”

Spain has built an extensive network of dams to supply water to its farms and towns.

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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 area of ​​irrigated land it has from 900,000 hectares (2,224,000 acres) to 3,400,000 hectares, according to the website of the Ministry of Ecological Transition, which calls the system a water management of the country as a “success story”.

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

The dams “had their uses” but they also encouraged the “overexploitation” of water and the decline in its quality by blocking the natural course of rivers, explained Julio Barea, water expert at Greenpeace Spain.

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

Spain’s dam network depends on sufficient rainfall to replenish its many reservoirs, he said.

But “climate change already underway, which will continue for decades to come, will increase the risk of failures,” the body said in a recent report.

Experts say how Spain uses water is also a major problem.

“Consumption has been steadily increasing as water becomes increasingly scarce. This is an aberration,” Barea said.

“The 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.

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But agriculture absorbs most – more than 80% – of the country’s water resources.

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

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

“We cannot be the vegetable garden of Europe” when “there are water shortages for the inhabitants”, she added.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s government last month adopted a strategic plan 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” uses of resources.

But experts say reforms remain tentative, with many regions continuing to increase the area of ​​irrigated land.

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

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Martinez agrees with this view, saying that Spain is currently the European nation “exerting the most pressure on its water resources”.

“Today there are decisions that no one wants to make. We cannot keep moving forward blindly,” she said.

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