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Why Spain is destroying dams in the middle of a drought

Alex Dunham
Alex Dunham - [email protected]
Why Spain is destroying dams in the middle of a drought
Despite the current government push to swap reservoirs for rivers in Spain, the agricultural sector is calling for more newly built dams that are capable of storing diminishing rainwater supplies they need for irrigation and their livestock. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

As Spanish farmers warn they face the worst harvests in 30 years and parts of the country have restricted water usage, the government continues with its plans to demolish hundreds of dams. 

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Spain has long been a land of reservoirs.

During the days of Franco, the dictator invested heavily in dam infrastructure as a means of storing water ahead of periods of drought. Many Spanish cities still get their drinking water from reservoirs commissioned by El Caudillo.

But this approach has been changing in recent years, even though the country is now facing its worst drought in 50 years.

In 2021, Spain blew up 108 dams, more than half of the 239 that were demolished across Europe that year, according to figures from the Dam Removal project, coordinated by World Fish Migration Foundation.

READ ALSO: Water rationed in Catalonia as worst drought in 50 years bites deeper

So why does Spain appear to be so wasteful during a period of drought? 

A 2021 study by the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) found that far from contributing to worsening the drought, the demolition of river barriers has a very positive environmental impact, calling it “the fastest, easiest and cheapest measure to restore a river”. 

“Spain is one of the European countries with the most dams,” the report explains.

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“We have identified 5,400 priority barriers for demolition due to their high potential to reconnect rivers, the disappearance of which would make it possible to free more than 17,000 kilometres of rivers in Spain”.

“In a few months (the river) recovers its territory, the quality of the water improves, the forests come back to life, the number of species -aquatic and terrestrial- shoots up and the ecosystem that a river in good ecological condition provides work again”. 

So even though the destruction of reservoirs may seem counterproductive to drought avoidance, the Spanish government is following the latest advice relating to climate change and river regeneration.

Furthermore, not all of the recently demolished dams (called presas in Spanish) were in use. 

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“Dams that were already out of use are being dismantled, as well as facilities that the government considers no longer viable for environmental or economic reasons " Eduardo Rojo, responsible for Iberdrola dam maintenance, told Spanish newspaper El Independiente.

There’s also the fact that the vast majority of water barriers built during the mid-20th century have a lifespan of 50 years before they need repair, meaning that the hundreds that were erected during the Franco era are already past their prime. 

READ ALSO: Europe faces more deadly droughts and extreme heat

Despite the current government push to swap reservoirs for rivers in Spain, the agricultural sector is calling for more newly built dams that are capable of storing diminishing rainwater supplies they need for irrigation and their livestock. 

It’s practically not rained in Spain throughout March and April (parts of Spain haven’t seen a drop in 125 days) and the country’s farming sector is warning they could have the worst harvests in 30 years this spring and summer, affecting everything from olives to cereals and grapes.

Víctor Viciedo of SOS Rural, an NGO representing more than a hundred associations in rural Spain, told news outlet Libre Mercado that it’s “a big lie" that dams are obstacles for species to exist, as these presas "have created reservoirs that have their own life." 

“Maybe river flow is very easy in Europe, but Spain is dry and if we don't dam the water, not a drop of water reaches the Mediterranean in summer.”

Spain’s hydraulic reserves are currently at 50.7 percent capacity and 27 percent of the country is on government alert for lack of water.

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