The social component of drought

Drought is a pressing problem that cannot be studied from a physical point of view alone. The social sciences also have a lot to say

Pilar Paneque Salgado

PILAR SALTED PANEQUE Professor of Human Geography and head of the Global Change Research Lab and the Citizen Drought Observatory, Pablo de Olavide University

It is well known that, in the current context of climate change, droughts will be more frequent and more severe both in terms of intensity and duration. Decreased precipitation and higher evaporation and transpiration from rising temperatures will result in less availability of water resources. This makes it difficult to cover demands for water that have not stopped growing and a situation of scarcity is generated –reflected in the state of the reservoirs– in which action must be taken urgently to minimize impacts.

This situation of scarcity has become structural in many territories and is not a direct result of more or less rainfall being recorded. Scarcity stems from an unsustainable production and consumption system that is decoupled from the climate emergency we are facing. We know that droughts are inherent to our climate, but we have acted as if our geography could bow to the interests of an ever-expanding economic system. Arriving at this situation, it is necessary to stop looking at the sky and advance in new frameworks of analysis.

What explains this situation in Spain?

Drought indicators have been behaving relatively normally in the current hydrological year. However, we have seen that in recent months all the alarms have been raised in relation to water scarcity. Not being able to appeal to the lack of rain to justify the current situation forces us to focus on issues that have little or nothing to do with the meteorological or the probabilistic.

The scarcity that it faces in Spain is a consequence of having ignored the physical limits of its basins. This translates into the non-recognition of the variability and uncertainty about the available water and the sustained overexploitation of water resources, more than 80% of which are consumed by irrigation.

All this leads to some very worrying data. More than 70% of river basin districts suffer from high or severe water stress levels. Around 45% of the water is not in good condition. And, without a doubt, these figures contravene the objectives and water quality standards established by the Water Framework Directive, which Spain assumed two decades ago.

All the efforts made in the renewal of hydrological and drought planning - which have been many - have not been able to reverse this situation of water stress, which is the result of a century of agricultural and hydraulic development.

The expansion and intensification of irrigation and the construction of large hydraulic infrastructures as State policies have given rise to a hydrological and territorial situation incompatible with the climatic reality of the country. This situation is also incompatible with its sociological reality. Barometer after barometer confirms the population's concern about the effects of climate change and its preference for water demand management measures (saving and reuse) over supply (reservoirs and transfers).

What is the role of social sciences and citizenship?

The advances made in the monitoring of meteorological droughts have made it possible to have exhaustive monitoring tools in real time and with a high spatial resolution. In contrast, no similar effort or investment has been made to discover the social component of this risk. That is to say, the vulnerability of territories and populations that, in addition, is ignored in all hydrological and drought planning.

Vulnerability assessment and analysis addresses the difficult task of studying those characteristics that make us more likely to suffer damage in the face of a drought episode and less able to adapt in the short and long term to a risk that we know is recurrent. This takes us fully into social and institutional dimensions and into very dynamic and changing realities. We are talking about characteristics, therefore, that are more difficult to measure and specify in indicators, but that allow us to monitor this risk component at appropriate spatial and temporal scales.

In fact, risks are produced, selected and defined socially. Proper risk management requires giving greater prominence to disciplines such as geography, sociology and philosophy. That is: correct risk management must integrate issues such as communication and the social perception of risk, the elaboration of discourses, institutional trust or conflict resolution mechanisms.

Precisely, confirming the changes that have already occurred in society will allow us to abandon the catastrophic view that we still have of drought and water scarcity. In this way, we can begin to understand them as unbeatable opportunities to carry out profound institutional transformations and as accelerators of the hydrological transition.

Addressing the social component of risk requires the inclusion of citizens, both in scientific research and in the development of policies and plans. For this, social participation in science and citizen science must be strengthened as facilitators of the integration of knowledge, the co-production of knowledge and the search for local variations and solutions.

In addition, it is essential to promote deliberative processes –such as the recent Citizen Assembly for Climate– where the values ​​and interests at stake are made explicit. This will allow progress in the search for truly effective solutions that, in the case of water and according to its distribution among different uses, necessarily go through the reconversion of the agricultural sector and not through individual actions carried out in our homes.

All this will make it possible to address the complexity of water management, the necessary adaptation to scarcity and the social and territorial compensations that the hydrological transition will require, which directly challenge our democracy.

This article has been published in '
The Conversation'.

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