‘Spain needs to change its ways’: Scientists warn over worsening drought

Jorge Olcina, a geographer and director of the University of Alicante’s Climatology Laboratory, has warned that climate change is increasing the intensity of drought and Spain will have to change the way it manages water.

'Spain needs to change its ways': Scientists warn over worsening drought
This photograph taken on February 10, 2022 shows an aerial view of the monastery of San Salvador de la Vedella, now accessible by foot due to the low water level whereas in recent years the only access was by boat, in Cercs, Catalonia. Photo by Aitor De ITURRIA / AFP

Spain and Portugal are being hit with extreme drought this winter due to the lack of rain in January, which was the second driest January since 2000 on the Iberian Peninsula, according to the meteorological agencies of the two countries.

The coming months will be crucial when it comes to establishing the drought’s medium and long-term evolution. “If the rain situation does not change radically in March and April, all the hydrographic basins will be hit by drought, and water restrictions will have to begin to be applied to irrigation,” Olcina told Información.

He also said national and regional governments are not doing enough to highlight the importance of the situation. They “must change the narrative around water and explain it to citizens,” he said. “It must be planned from the sustainable management of demand, and not from the continued idea of supply, which has been the traditional paradigm developed in our country.”

“We have to be aware that new [water] transfers in Spain will no longer be possible, and that maintaining existing ones, in some cases, is going to be complicated due to climate change.”

So far 2022 is the second driest year in the past century, something that is worrying farmers across the country.

The regions in Spain that are being worst affected by the drought are the south of the Iberian Peninsula, such as the Guadalquivir river, the Mediterranean and Atlantic basins in Andalucía, the Guadiana river on the Spain-Portugal border, the Miño river and the basins of Catalonia.

Recently the old town of Aceredo in Galicia’s province of Ourense remerged from a reservoir. The village was deliberately flooded and submerged underwater in 1992, but every few years this eerie pueblo reappears when water levels are low.

Spain’s water reservoirs are currently only at 44 percent capacity.

When asked whether we could expect restrictions in water consumption in Spain this summer, Olcina said it was unlikely except in towns that have a poorly designed drinking water management system – those that don’t have storage tanks to withstand 3 or 4 months without rain. 

This occurs especially in towns in the interior of the country that depend on rainwater that reacher rivers of aquifers. Restrictions in water consumption are already being announced in parts of Andalucía and “the city of Ávila is beginning to be concerned with the situation,” Olcina said.

READ ALSO: ‘It’s not normal’ – How dozens of villages in Spain struggle for drinking water

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EXPLAINED: How the climate crisis is hitting Europe hard

From deadly wildfires to catastrophic floods, Europe is seeing the impact of the climate crisis with episodes of extreme weather only likely to increase in the coming years as average temperatures rise.

EXPLAINED: How the climate crisis is hitting Europe hard

Europe endured record extreme weather in 2021, from the hottest day and the warmest summer to deadly wildfires and
flooding, the European Union’s climate monitoring service reported Friday.

While Earth’s surface was nearly 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels last year, Europe saw an average increase of more than two degrees, a threshold beyond which dangerous extreme weather events become
more likely and intense, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) said.

The warmest summer on record featured a heatwave along the Mediterranean rim lasting weeks and the hottest day ever registered in Europe, a blistering 48.8C (120 degrees Fahrenheit) in Italy’s Sicily.

In Greece, high temperatures fuelled deadly wildfires described by the prime minister as the country’s “greatest ecological disaster in decades”.

Forests and homes across more than 8,000 square kilometres (3,000 square miles) were burned to the ground.

Front loaders work to move branches and uprooted trees near a bridge over the Ahr river in Insul, Ahrweiler district, western Germany, on July 28, 2021, weeks after heavy rain and floods caused major damage in the Ahr region. – At least 180 people died when severe floods pummelled western Germany over two days in mid-July, raising questions about whether enough was done to warn residents ahead of time. (Photo by Sascha Schuermann / AFP)

A slow-moving, low-pressure system over Germany, meanwhile, broke the record in mid-July for the most rain dumped in a single day.

The downpour was nourished by another unprecedented weather extreme, surface water temperatures over part of the Baltic Sea more than 5C above average.

Flooding in Germany and Belgium caused by the heavy rain — made far more likely by climate change, according to peer-reviewed studies — killed scores and caused billions of euros in damage.

As the climate continues to warm, flooding on this scale will become more frequent, the EU climate monitor has warned.

“2021 was a year of extremes including the hottest summer in Europe, heatwaves in the Mediterranean, flooding and wind droughts in western Europe,” C3S director Carlo Buontempo said in a statement.

“This shows that the understanding of weather and climate extremes is becoming increasingly relevant for key sectors of society.”     

A picture taken on July 15, 2021 shows damaged cars on a flooded street in the Belgian city of Verviers, after heavy rains and floods lashed western Europe, killing at least two people in Belgium. (Photo by François WALSCHAERTS / AFP)

‘Running out of time’

The annual report, in its fifth edition, also detailed weather extremes in the Arctic, which has warmed 3C above the 19th-century benchmark — nearly three times the global average.

Carbon emissions from Arctic wildfires, mostly in eastern Siberia, topped 16 million tonnes of CO2, roughly equivalent to the total annual carbon pollution of Bolivia.

Greenland’s ice sheet — which along with the West Antarctic ice sheet has become the main driver of sea level rise — shed some 400 billion tonnes in mass in 2021.

The pace at which the world’s ice sheets are disintegrating has accelerated more than three-fold in the last 30 years.

“Scientific experts like the IPCC have warned us we are running out of time to limit global warming to 1.5C,” said Mauro Facchini, head of Earth observation at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space, referring to the UN’s science advisory panel.

“This report stresses the urgent necessity to act as climate-related extreme events are already occurring.”