Spain faces threat of water crisis

The Aldeadávila Dam on the Douro River evacuates water due to excessive rainfall in 2010. [Raiden32/Flickr]

In the last 20 years, Spain has lost 20% of its fresh water. If the effects of climate change continue unabated, this figure will rise to 25% by 2021. EURACTIV’s partner El País – Planeta Futuro reports.

In addition to losing more of its fresh water, floods and droughts will increase in the coming years. These are the main conclusions of the Spanish ecological group, Ecologists in Action, which presented two reports at the COP21 climate summit.

The first of its studies analysed how water sources have changed and fluctuated over the last 50 years and if there were any trends.  The results were obtained from real data extracted from different gauging stations that have been monitored for the last half century. The NGO highlighted that its findings are no mere predictions, but patterns and trends that are currently ongoing.

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Santiago Martín Barajas, an expert in the field, said that the trends they had observed are “worrying”. “Bear in mind that the 20% figure is an average. In some areas around the Mediterranean basin, 40% reductions have been recorded,” he warned.

The reasons that have led to this situation are twofold: a reduction in rainfall and increasing temperatures. Moreover, Spain uses 80% of its water supply to irrigate crops. At the same time, consumer demand is up 10% following national water plans that were recently approved by the central government, as well as an expansion of areas that require irrigation.

“If water volume is decreasing and consumption is on the up, then we are facing a total collapse,” Martín Barajas added. The report’s recommendation for restoring balance would involve reducing the amount of irrigated areas from 4 million hectares to 3 million hectares.

This is but one of the most visible consequences of climate change, with serious social, environmental and economic ramifications. If the trend is not reversed, then we will have “to cross the Straits of Gibraltar” for water, he added.

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Beyond water poverty, one of the other indicators of Spain’s problem is the failed Ebro inter-basin transfer project. Martín Barajas explained that the plan launched by the last government, to transfer water from the Ebro River into the Segura basin, was hard to implement as there simply was not enough water to achieve it.

More droughts and more floods

There are more droughts and floods in Spain for the very same reason, according to the second report that was presented. Julia Martínez, who authored and presented the study, said that the Mediterranean coast, Canary Islands and Basque country are most vulnerable to these extreme weather events. Additionally, floods will become more frequent across Europe, especially the South and could increase by 70% by the end of the century.

“In the last few years we have seen an increase in flooding, damaging the economy and taking many lives,” explained the climate expert. The reason behind this development is mismanagement in three areas: an increase in urbanisation, meaning the likelihood and seriousness of these events is increased; an increase in building on flood plains; and finally, the fact that roads and other embankments often change how water has traditionally drained away and it has been diverted towards new areas.

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The response of the authorities has not been satisfactory, according to the expert, because they are not adapting to the problem and the increased risks. “They have championed bad solutions like dams,” she said. According to the study, these infrastructures do not work and create a false sense of security and referenced a piece of European legislation adopted in 2007 that says that floods cannot be prevented completely, only the effects can be minimised.

The NGO’s recommended course of action to adapt and minimise the consequences of flooding and drought is to improve the management of rivers and waterways and, on a global level, agree to climate targets that will prevent the temperature from rising by more than 1.5 degrees.  Martín Barajas concluded by saying that the consequences of failure could be “devastating”.

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