Spain’s water shortage has never been so severe

by Lorraine Williamson
water shortage

MADRID – Currently, Spain’s water reserve stands at 39.6% of its total capacity: its reservoirs store 22,252 cubic hectometres of water. That is 170 less than last week. There has been little rainfall in recent days on the Atlantic side and almost none on the Mediterranean side. The maximum precipitation was 24.8 l/m2 in Pontevedra. 

And although the rainfall in Spain last year was about the same as the year before, the average level of the reservoirs is 23% lower than that of the last ten years and 13% lower than last year. Several factors play a role: 

Dryer than average autumn 

The weather forecasts assume that the coming months will be drier than usual. According to the Spanish weather service AEMET, autumn will be particularly dry. ‘There is a good chance the last quarter will see below-average rainfall in most of the peninsula,’ explains AEMET spokesman Rubén del Campo. The effect is already being felt. Cumulative rainfall since the start of the new hydrological year from 1 October to the 14th has not even reached half of normal values and is 52% below normal for the reference period, according to AEMET.  

Irrigation major culprit 

The reservoirs are now at 40% of capacity, whereas they would normally be at 52% at this time of year. Furthermore, it has rained as much as in other years. However, the problem is that we irrigate too much in Spain. In Spain, 85% of water is used for irrigation, 12% for human consumption and 3% for industry. And there is no control over the consumption of water, especially for irrigation, the consumption is disproportionately high, and this poses a great risk in the coming months,’ says Santiago Martín Barajas, expert in water management at the Spanish environmental organisation Ecologistas en Acción.

He continues: ‘The reservoirs should be reserves for when we have a shortage of water, but they have become irrigation stations. If you consume water daily, do not reduce consumption and the autumn is dry, we will have a shortage. There is no time to fill the reservoirs,’ he explains. ‘Without rain, we will have problems with supply in the coming months’. 

Water shortage in coming months

Barajas also points out that crops that used to be grown more on drier ground, such as olives, almonds and vineyards, are now being irrigated. This makes them more profitable, makes more money. They don’t use much water, but when you have 800,000 hectares, it suddenly becomes a lot. Moreover, the price of water used for irrigation is very low compared to other countries. And what happens? If we continue to use water unchecked, there will be a shortage in the coming months‘.   

In Spain, three million hectares could be irrigated without a water shortage, but currently 4.1 million hectares are irrigated, not counting illegal irrigation, which also exists. The solution would be to stop some of the irrigation. In urban water supply, at least 80% of the water returns to the system, if not more. Irrigation yields 10%. 

River basins 

The Ministry of Ecological Transition warns of the consequences for the Guadalquivir and Guadiana basins if there is no rainfall in the coming months. In fact, the Guadalquivir basin has begun the hydrological year in a state of alert and the Guadiana basin in a state of emergency. ‘The demand for water is not high in this period, but the limit has been reached’. 

The Hydrographic Confederation of the Guadalquivir (CHG) said on Thursday that it would manage ‘every drop of water’ given the current situation. The draft Hydrological Plan being prepared for the next six years proposes not to increase the number of hectares for irrigation because ‘the limit has been reached’.  

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Drinking water supply constraints 

The towns of Aguadulce and Pedrera, in the Sierra Sur de Sevilla, have already experienced drinking water supply restrictions this summer. Normally they are lifted at the end of the swimming pool and bathing season, but this year the restrictions have been extended to apply from 11.00 pm onwards and at weekends. More than 7,000 inhabitants have been affected: 5,000 in Pedrera and about 2,000 in Aguadulce.   

Reservoirs are also at minimum levels in the north 

Another example of scarcity is the reservoirs in Galicia, which have lost another 40 cubic hectometres of water in the past week and now have 44.3% of their capacity, according to data from the Ministry of Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge.  

Climate change 

“Due to climate change, we will experience more frequent extreme droughts and greater insecurity. If we continue to consume as we used to, it will become more difficult to guarantee water for ecosystems and for society,’ says Rafael Seiz of the World Wildlife Fund in Spain. 

In Spain, it is normal to have cycles of five drier years and then one wetter year. But climate change is changing everything. In addition, the temperature in our country has risen 1.1% more than average, which means more water is evaporating. And, therefore, we are using more water that yields less,’ says Seiz. 

He continues: ‘Water policy needs to change urgently and that requires us to work together. Farmers must reduce their water consumption and make the best possible use of the water they have. This may mean that they grow less of some crops to avoid surpluses. In Cartagena, for example, melons were left on the field and then thrown away. The water has already been wasted. The problems are mainly due to poor management rather than the physical scarcity of water resources’.   

Complicated problem 

Seiz and Barajas agree that it is a complicated issue. ‘Governments are becoming aware of the problem, but so far none of them have made any changes. Such as making less water available for irrigation, building more efficient systems and, above all, cultivating fewer fields to be able to store water in the reservoirs for when there is a real shortage,’ they explain.  

Electricity 

Water is needed to produce electricity, and with the gas crisis, the electricity companies have wanted to maintain their profits. The electricity companies have pumped out reservoirs, taking advantage of high electricity prices and the low cost of generating hydroelectric power. In this way, they have increased their profit margin. They empty the reservoir for the turbine at zero rate and sell at a higher price. This way of doing things seems to me to be a bad practice that should not be allowed,’ said Seiz.   

Consequences 

As during the 1994 drought, if this continues and demand is not curbed, large parts of the country will face water problems. The areas where most water is consumed include Andalucia, Castile-La Mancha, and Extremadura. In southern Spain, the water supply could even be stopped’, says the World Wildlife Fund. ‘Big cities like Madrid are being spared because their reservoirs are at 65%. And it is not because it rains a lot, but because there is less irrigation. But the Spanish countryside could suffer from the rationing of such a vital resource,’ Barajas said. 

Ecologistas en Acción advocates a 25% reduction in irrigation, but the big problem is that ‘both the irrigators and the farmers do not even want to hear that their business plans are being changed’.

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