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ENVIRONMENT

Drought forces water use rethink in Spain

Faced with a historic drought and threatened by desertification, Spain is rethinking how it spends its water resources

Drought forces water use rethink in Spain
This photograph taken on February 15, 2022 shows an aerial view of the Lake Dulce in Campillos, Málaga. Photo:JORGE GUERRERO/AFP

Faced with a historic drought and threatened by desertification, Spain is rethinking how it spends its water resources, which are used mainly to irrigate crops.

“We must be extremely careful and responsible instead of looking the other way,” Spain’s Minister for the Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera said recently, about the impact of the lack of rain.

Like France and Italy, Spain has been gripped by several extreme heatwaves this summer after an unusually dry winter.

That has left the country’s reservoirs at 40.4 percent of their capacity in August, 20 percentage points below the average over the last decade for this time of the year.

Officials have responded by limiting water use, especially in the southern region of Andalusia, which grows much of Europe’s fruits and vegetables.

Reservoir water levels in the region are particularly low, just 25 percent at most of their capacity.

“The situation is dramatic,” said University of Jaen hydrology professor Rosario Jimenez, adding both underground aquifers and surface bodies of water were running low.

The situation is especially worrying since it is part of a long-term trend linked to climate change, she added.Parts of Spain are the driest they have been in a thousand years due to an atmospheric high-pressure system driven by climate change, according to a study published last month in the journal, Nature Geoscience.

Greenpeace estimates that 75 percent of the country is susceptible to desertification.

‘Overexploitation’ 

Spain has built a vast network of dams to provide water for its farms and towns. During the 20th century, 1,200 large dams were built in the country, the highest number in Europe per capita.

This has allowed Spain to increase the amount of irrigated land it has from 900,000 hectares (2,224,000 acres) to 3,400,000 hectares, according to the ecological transition ministry’s website, which calls the country’s water management system “an example of success”.

But many experts say the system is now showing its limits.

The dams “had their use” but they have also encouraged the “overexploitation” of water and the decline in its quality by blocking the natural course of rivers, said Julio Barea, a water expert at Greenpeace Spain.

For the scientific council of the Rhone-Mediterranean Basin Committee, a French body which groups hydrology specialists, Spain is nearing the “physical limits” of its water management model.

Spain’s network of dams relies on sufficient rainfall to replenish its many reservoirs, it said.

But “the climate changes already under way, which will continue in the decades to come, will increase the risk of failures,” the body said in a recent report.

Experts say the way Spain uses water is also a major problem.”Consumption has not stopped increasing while water is becoming increasingly scarce. It’s an aberration,” said Barea.

‘Europe’s vegetable garden’

Spain is the second most visited country in the world and significant amounts of water are used in tourism infrastructure like swimming pools and golf courses.

But agriculture absorbs the bulk — over 80 percent — of the country’s water resources.

It is sometimes used to grow crops that are not suitable for a dry climate — such as strawberries or avocados — for export to other European countries. Spain’s use of irrigation “is irrational,” said Julia Martinez, biologist and director of the FNCA Water Conservation Foundation.

“We cannot be Europe’s vegetable garden” while “there are water shortages for the inhabitants,” she added.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s government adopted a strategic plan last month to adapt Spain’s water management system to “the impacts of global warming”.

It includes measures to promote water recycling and “efficient and rational” uses of resources. But specialists say that reforms remain timid, with many regions continuing to increase the amount of irrigated land.

“We need more drastic measures,” said Barea, who called for a restructuring of the agriculture system.

Martinez shares this view, saying Spain is currently the European nation “exerting the most pressure on its water resources.”

“Today there are decisions that no one wants to take. We can’t continue to blindly forge ahead,” she said.

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ENVIRONMENT

Spain grants personhood status to threatened Mar Menor lagoon

Spain has granted personhood status to Murcia's Mar Menor saltwater lagoon in order to give its threatened ecosystem better protection, the first time such a measure has been taken in Europe.

Spain grants personhood status to threatened Mar Menor lagoon

The initiative to grant the status to the Mar Menor — one of Europe’s largest saltwater lagoons — was debated in parliament after campaigners collected over 500,000 signatures backing it.

It now becomes law after Spain’s Senate, the upper house of parliament, voted in favour of the proposal, with only far-right party Vox opposing it.

This will allow the rights of the lagoon located in southeastern Spain to be defended in court, as though it were a person or business.

“The Mar Menor becomes the first European ecosystem with its own rights after the Senate approved the bill to give it a legal identity,” the president of the Senate, Ander Gil, tweeted after the vote.

The lagoon will now be legally represented by a group of caretakers made up of local officials, scientists who work in the area and local residents.

Ecologists have for years warned that the Mar Menor is slowly dying due to the runoff of fertilisers from nearby farms.

In August 2021, millions of dead fish and crustaceans began washing up on the shores of the lagoon, which experts blamed on agricultural pollution.

They argue that sealife died due to a lack of oxygen caused by hundreds of tonnes of fertiliser nitrates leaking into the waters causing a phenomenon known as eutrophication which collapses aquatic ecosystems.

Two similar catastrophic pollution events occurred in 2016 and 2019.

Ecologists in October 2021 submitted a formal complaint to the EU over what they called Spain’s “continued failure” to protect the Mar Menor, which they warned was on the brink of “ecological collapse”.

The following month the Spanish government unveiled a 382-million-euro ($377 million) plan to regenerate the lagoon.

It outlines several environmental regeneration projects to support biodiversity in and around the lagoon, including the creation of a 1.5-kilometre (one mile) buffer zone along the Mar Menor’s shores.

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