Current snow shortage in the Pyrenees will worsen Spain’s water crisis

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snow shortage

In the midst of winter, the peaks of Navarra, Huesca, and Lleida are covered with only half to a third of the snow reserves that have been typical over the past two decades.

“Glaciers and snow are very good indicators of the state of the hydrological system. They tell you about the reserves. This year’s snow shortage indicates that things are going to get worse,” explains Paco Iturbe of Ecologistas en Acción and the Mountain Defense Platform. The lack of snow connects the drought in the Mediterranean region with that in the Cantabrian region, pointing to an impending period of water scarcity.

Unprecedented snow shortages

Both the Pyrenees and the Cantabrian mountains, where the Ebro River originates, are experiencing historic snow shortages this year. The situation is more than alarming: there is no snow in Cantabria and Burgos, and practically none in Navarra. Furthermore, the notes on Huesca and Lleida range from “very low” to “minimal seen in five years.” In late February, the CHE (Confederación Hidrográfica del Ebro) reported that the snow peak had started to decline after barely exceeding 600 cubic hectometers. This volume is significantly lower than the average of 1,580 cubic hectometers over the past 18 years.

Snow as a water reservoir

“Snow acts as a surface water reservoir that provides rivers with extra water in the spring. The current data predicts an intense drought,” warns Julia Martínez of the FNCA (Fundación Nueva Cultura del Agua). Changes in the snow regime in the Pyrenees that have been observed include later snowfall and an earlier end to accumulation. This increases the chances of evaporation before the snow can melt, depriving rivers of a crucial springtime replenishment.


The current drought in the Ebro basin connects areas in Catalonia and Cantabria. In the former, more than six million people are affected by a drought emergency. In Cantabria, water reserves are below a third of their capacity. This situation threatens about a quarter of the Spanish population and could extend to Valencia, Murcia, and Andalusia if the drought worsens.

Declining river levels

The decreasing water reserves in the rivers of the Ebro basin are causing concern. Recent levels fall below ecological safety minimums. The current snow shortage will not help. “Some rivers have ridiculously low flows, and there is hardly any snow. It’s alarming,” says Paco Iturbe, environmental spokesperson for Ecologistas en Acción.

Speculation instead of sustainable solutions

According to experts consulted by El Público, the debate on water management is dominated by speculation. Water transfers are demanded from areas with chronic water shortages on the Mediterranean side. Furthermore, expansion of irrigation is proposed as an instrument to prevent scarcity in areas that are not yet aware of it.

According to Martínez, people need to be explained that the water availability of the 1960s and 1970s will not return. “Those quantities are gone forever; they are part of the past,” says Martínez. The technical director of the FNCA warns of a clear risk of conflicts: “It will create tensions between human consumption and ecological consumption.” While agriculture, livestock, and industry should be subject to significant restrictions.

Also read: Uncertain future for ski resorts in the Pyrenees due to climate change

The need to rethink the entire system is very urgent, however. “We need to rethink everything,” concludes Iturbe. He points to the impact of climate change, which seems to be faster and more intense than predicted.


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