‘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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Why parts of Spain are the driest they’ve been in 1,200 years

Parts of Spain and Portugal are the driest they've been in over 1,000 years, according to research published on Monday which warns of severe implications for wine and olive production in the Iberian Peninsula.

Why parts of Spain are the driest they've been in 1,200 years

The Azores High, an area of high pressure that rotates clockwise over parts of the North Atlantic, has a major effect on weather and long term climate trends in western Europe.

But in a new modelling study published in the journal Nature Geoscience, researchers in the United States found this high-pressure system “has changed dramatically in the past century and that these changes in North Atlantic climate are unprecedented within the past millennium”.

Using climate model simulations over the last 1,200 years, the study found that this high-pressure system started to grow to cover a greater area around 200 years ago, as human greenhouse gas pollution began to increase.

It expanded even more dramatically in the 20th century in step with global warming.

The authors then looked at evidence of rainfall levels preserved over hundreds of years in Portuguese stalagmites, and found that as the Azores High has expanded, the winters in the western Mediterranean have become drier.

The study cites projections that the level of precipitation could fall a further 10 to 20 percent by the end of this century, which the authors say would make Iberian agriculture “some of the most vulnerable in Europe”.

They warn that the Azores High will continue to expand during the 21st century as greenhouse gas levels rise, leading to an increasing risk of drought on the Iberian Peninsula and threatening key crops.

“Our findings have important implications for projected changes in western Mediterranean hydroclimate throughout the twenty-first century,” the authors said.

researchers have predicted a 30-percent drop in production for olive regions in southern Spain by 2100. (Photo by RAYMOND ROIG / AFP)

Wither on the vines

The Azores High acts as a “gatekeeper” for rainfall into Europe, according to the study, with dry air descending in the summer months to cause hot, arid conditions in much of Portugal, Spain and the western Mediterranean.

In the cool, wetter winter period, the high-pressure system swells, sending westerly winds carrying rain inland.   

This winter rain is “vital” for both the ecological and economic health of the region, but it has been decreasing, particularly over the second half of the 20th century.

While previous research had not untangled the effects of natural variability on the Azores High, the authors said their findings show its expansion during the industrial era is linked to the rise of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

A study cited in the latest research estimates that the area suitable for grape growing in the Iberian Peninsula could shrink by at least a quarter and potentially vanish almost completely by 2050 because of severe water shortages.

Meanwhile, researchers have predicted a 30-percent drop in production for olive regions in southern Spain by 2100.

Winemakers are already looking for ways to adapt to the changing climate, such as moving vineyards to higher altitudes and experimenting with more heat-tolerant varieties.

Last year, scientists found that a severe spring frost that ravaged grape vines in France was made more likely by climate change, with the plants budding earlier and therefore more susceptible to damage.