It's not (just) the drought: how we got to the water faucet outages

It's not (just) the drought: how we got to the water faucet outages

Only twelve months ago, the water reserves in Spain were at 44%. In a year of normal rainfall –at the average of the last 40 years–, the reservoirs had been squeezed to the lowest of the decade. Twelve months later, failing the usual rainfall and unable to recover from intensive consumption, resources have fallen to a century low: 39%. The average for the decade is 58%.

The situation is such that it has required restrictions that they have already caused cuts in the faucet of the houses of some populations. But how did we get here?

"We are already in a scenario of severe water stress, which is a consequence in large part of the decisions that have been made in the last two years: to maintain attention to demands with small restrictions," analyzes the person in charge of the WWF water program, Raphael Seize.

When the last hydrological year closed in September 2021, the massive consumption of water had Spain condemned to scarcity: after the summer risk campaign, the entire Guadalquivir basin was on alert despite the fact that none of its systems declared a drought weather. Three quarters of the Guadiana basin were also in a similar state.

"We have not been brave or far-sighted – no matter how tough it was politically – saving water and restricting its use in a more decisive way when the situation already indicated that it was going to be difficult," adds Seiz.

It happened that in the months in which, statistically, the reservoirs recover their level after being squeezed for irrigation (the tourist season also demands more water), it did not rain enough. Precipitation from October to January fell 25% compared to the average.

"Although there have been irrigation restrictions in some places and crops, without rain we are now more at the limit. It is not a particularly serious drought or, at least, not more so than others, but the scarcity is due to the pressures on resources", analyzes the Geography professor and member of the Citizen Drought Observatory, Jesús Vargas.

The pressures come, mostly, from the agricultural sector, especially irrigation. Spain, despite being dominated by a Mediterranean climate prone to droughts and whose three quarters of the territory are aridleads the area dedicated to irrigated crops in Europe.

Some 3.8 million hectares are dedicated to these crops, according to the surface survey of the Ministry of Agriculture. From 2004 to 2021 it has increased by half a million hectares, a jump of 15%. And all that land demands water to produce.

Precisely during the autumn quarter, in which dry weeks were chaining when they should be the wettest of the course, the most intensive consumers, the irrigators, reacted to the new hydrological planning of the Government. The calculation of the Ministry of Ecological Transition that we will have to use between 5% and 15% less water by 2050 and increase the minimum flows that flow through the rivers did not fit them. "It is radical environmentalism", settled the National Federation of Irrigators, Fenacore.

Fenacore's formula is committed to undertaking works that guarantee its demands to the maximum of water. "Regulation is fundamental," they defend. "The construction of new reservoirs is necessary to better defend ourselves from droughts." Water stores if it rains. They have also asked to legalize "drought wells," which are perforations in aquifers, and irrigation ponds to store liquid in "times of scarcity."

As the year turned and winter advanced, the situation continued to deteriorate: the Asaja employers' association and other agrarian organizations demanded aid from the Government for the drought. Agriculture signed a decree in mid-March this year with measures, which were put in place during weeks of record rain. March and April registered combined rainfall 155% higher than the historical average. The drought is forgotten.

Every year, the irrigation campaigns in all the hydrographic demarcations are accelerated from May with the arrival of high temperatures. In this course, the confederations reduced the water destined for irrigation, but after those rainfalls that evaporated the concern about the scarcity, dry months have been chained one after another.

"It has rained a little, but not so little, and of course it is not the main cause of the scarcity", insists Rafael Seiz. "I don't think that the administrations have looked the other way, but the right decisions have not been made either. The uses were restricted, but it has not been enough."

Meteorological droughts, that is, little rain, are a natural phenomenon of the Mediterranean climate. But climate change makes them become more recurrent and, above all, more severe. At higher temperatures –like the extreme and very persistent heat that has prevailed since May– Greater evapotranspiration of water is produced: between 1940 and 2005, the equivalent of 68% of the rains went into the atmosphere evaporated or transpired by plants. And the phenomenon has been exacerbated over the decades and the worsening of the environmental crisis: has grown at a rate of 7% per year from 1961 to 2011.

Last March, when the rains were scarce, the irrigators made their position clear: "What should be done to reduce the effects of the drought on irrigation is to reduce the ecological flows as much as possible this season, even if the status of affected water bodies. And that water "would be used for irrigation to somewhat improve the existing scenario." For Jesús Vargas, reality indicates the opposite: "You have to think very carefully about what each drop of water is used for in case the rainy situation does not improve." "This teaches us more than ever that we must be cautious in the use of water and that part of the adaptation to climate change inevitably involves reducing the use of water, especially in agriculture," concludes Rafael Seiz.

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