The Worst Drought Ever: Why Spain’s Water Crisis is a Wake-up Call for Climate Change

Photo via Reuters.com

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Most of Spain’s weather consists of sunny skies, few clouds, and warm temperatures. But the weather is not as perfect as it seems. Water throughout the country is becoming more scarce by the day as Europe is rapidly warming. The continent is warming at a faster pace than the rest of the world – the Mediterranean area is the fastest of all regions. The worst case is in northeastern Spain, particularly in Catalonia. The reservoirs in the region that provide water for approximately 6 million people, including those in Barcelona, are barely filled, at below 18 percent capacity. These reservoirs began drying up in April 2023, and since then, a state of emergency for the region has been in effect. In some areas, it has not rained in as long as three years, making the crisis the worst drought in modern history. Approximately 500 millimeters of rain are needed to make up for this shortage. For now, water has to be shipped to the Catalonia region to counter the drought. Additionally, the Andalusia region of Southern Spain, the most populated area with 9 million inhabitants, has experienced its lowest rainfall since the 1960s

Regions of Spain experiencing drought:
Image via Politico

Pictured is the lake-bed of the Sau reservoir in Vilanova de Sau, Spain

Photo via Bloomberg

The extreme drought that Spain is experiencing is a direct result of climate change. But the drought is just the start of the problem. With record-high temperatures across Europe this past summer, temperatures as high as 118 degrees Fahrenheit, and wildfires across the globe, the alarming impacts of climate change are being thrust into our faces, affecting all of us worldwide. The escalating severity of droughts across Spain is a stark illustration of the larger challenge of climate change that the world is confronting. As is common with climate-related issues, the drought has also become political, leading to conflicts over land, river access, agriculture, and the Spanish economy, among other areas. 

Droughts themselves are a serious environmental threat. Defined simply as a period of less rain or snow than expected over the course of a year, they typically become more severe over time. Coupled with rising temperatures, droughts are increasing as an extreme environmental threat. Despite droughts being a common occurrence throughout Spain’s history, they have worsened with time, and the current drought in Spain is the worst drought period that the country has experienced in over 100 years. Furthermore, droughts cause more damage underground as well. Groundwater is used up, making the dry ground absorb any surface water left, negatively impacting crops and agriculture. All in all, climate change has altered the natural pattern of droughts, making them more frequent, longer, and more severe.

Map of drought throughout the Iberian Peninsula:

Image via Politico

Scarce rainfall, high temperatures, intensive agriculture, high water consumption, and drilling wells have led to political finger-pointing. Are there solutions? Adaptation. In the short term, water restrictions and reuse. 

The restrictions placed on water usage in Spain include limited daily water usage per inhabitant: unwatered parks, dry fountains, empty swimming pools, and halved water usage for farmers. The Spanish Minister for Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera Rodríguez, declared that water, once considered a given in the country, can no longer be taken for granted. 

Intensive agriculture, a significant component and contributor to Spain’s economy, is a sector taking the most significant hit from the drought, as agriculture is the origin of 80 percent of Spain’s water demand. Much of the Spanish public considers agricultural land one of the most important natural resources in the country. Droughts have forced many agricultural zones throughout the country to rely on artificial irrigation, which over-exploits what is left of the groundwater reserves

Image via Kemira

These restrictions – as a result of the environmental issues – have created tension among neighboring regions, particularly those with greater access to water than Catalonia. For example, the neighboring region of Aragon has refused demands from left-of-center Catalonia to share water from the Ebro River. However, Aragon has expressed potential interests in sharing resources with Andalusia and Murcia, which also happen to be run by right-wing parties, as Aragon is. 

Spain’s Doñana National Park is the center of political conflict in the region as well. Once flowing with water, the National Park is cracking dry. Farmers and conservationists have been at the center of this issue, as farmers have begun extracting water from the park, worsening conditions for the ecosystem that calls the park home. This has since led to protests and strikes among Spanish farmers, wreaking havoc on the everyday lives of Spanish citizens and farmers alike. 

Similarly, in areas close to Doñana, illegal farms distributing water proliferate. Consequently, the farmers’ association of Almonte (roughly 300 legal farms) has little to no surface water left. With the threat of legalizing this illegal irrigation, the farmers’ association is fighting for water transfers for legal farmers. Looming over this is the potential for crop failures and lack of food for cattle. The crop failures also present a significant threat to Spain’s economy, considering Spain produces over half of the world’s olive oil. The Spanish government has since reduced funding by 21 percent for agricultural insurance. Hence, local farmers have less government support, making it difficult to mitigate the detrimental impacts of this climate crisis. As significant as this is for Spain’s economy, finding a solution to this severe issue will be challenging. Much of Spain has called on their government to enhance financial support for local farmers and the climate crisis as a whole. 

The increasing frequency and severity of droughts in Spain are significant indicators of the negative impact of climate change and global warming. The political, economic, and societal conflicts that Spain is facing are indicative of the future issues that climate change will bring for us and our planet. Addressing this issue is imperative in combating the droughts throughout Spain and climate change entirely. Otherwise, our future will contain further environmental destruction, further economic havoc, and further human conflict.

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This article was edited by Sarah Davey and Naba Syed.