Spain battles critical drought amid political division and complex water challenges

By Dr Darío Salinas Palacios, Cassini Group Spain

12 Dec 2023 by The Water Diplomat

The drought situation in Spain remains severe, especially affecting the mid-southern and eastern regions. Approximately 10 million people, roughly a quarter of the country's population, are currently subject to water restrictions due to this prolonged condition.

In Catalonia, the ongoing water crisis has persisted for 36 months, surpassing the severity of the drought recorded in 2008. During that period, the region lacked desalination plants and had to resort to importing water by ship from Marseille to fulfill the water needs of the Barcelona metropolitan area, where over 3 million people reside.

According to the Catalan Water Agency (ACA), a combination of high temperatures, scarce rainfall, and critically low reservoir levels, barely reaching 18% of their capacity, has resulted in the most severe drought in the region's history. This particular drought is notable for both its extensive coverage, affecting over 50% of Catalan territory, and its intensity, significantly impacting water supply and the local ecosystem.

In Andalusia, Spain's most populated region with 9 million inhabitants, which is  currently experiencing the lowest rainfall since the 1960s, a recent agreement has been reached regarding the financing and regulation of water use for irrigation within the boundaries of the Doñana National and Natural Park. This agreement, named the Pacto de Doñana, was brokered between the new national government, a result of a progressive coalition supported by several nationalist and pro-independence parties, and the autonomous government of Andalusia, led by the right-wing conservative Partido Popular, holding an absolute majority in the regional government.

In recent months, this natural reserve has been the focal point of  debate due to a controversial regional law promoted by the Partido Popular and supported by VOX, a far-right Spanish nationalist party that denies climate change and openly opposes the 2030 Agenda. This legislation aimed to expand irrigated areas around the National Park despite historically low water levels in the main marshes caused by prolonged drought and excessive aquifer exploitation.

The surroundings of the  feature extensive zones of intensive farming covering approximately 11,000 hectares dedicated, predominantly to growing berries in greenhouses. . About 1,500 hectares of this production is  illegal, impacting water regulation and access, especially during drought periods. The Doñana National Board established a 7,000-hectare limit on irrigation in 1991; however, since then, water extraction from the aquifer has more than tripled

In a context characterized by intense political polarisation in Spain, the Doñana Pact signifies the first significant agreement of the legislature between the nation's two main parties, the PP and the PSOE.

The pressure stemming from a segment of public opinion due to the environmental deterioration of Doñana (which is also the habitat of the Iberian lynx), the internationalization of the conflict under the auspices of the European Commission, and the political stance of the current President of Andalusia, Juanma Moreno—who represents the moderate vision of the PP and seeks to align the party closer to the center electorate—are key aspects for understanding this change in position.

This situation notably contrasts with the stance of her party counterpart, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the President of the Community of Madrid. She recently announced legal action against the national government concerning the Tagus Hydrological Plan. Accusing Sánchez of attempting to 'deprive' Madrid of water, Díaz Ayuso employs rhetoric similar to that of Vox, particularly concerning climate change and environmental pollution. Her government argues that the decree damages Madrid's interests and has taken the lawsuit to the Supreme Court

The new Tagus Hydrological Plan (2022-2027 cycle, established under the the EU Water Framework Directive) has emerged as the focal point of water conflicts among various stakeholders, including water users, civil and ecological associations, political parties, and several autonomous communities in Spain. The implementation of ecological flows in the River Tagus, particularly as it courses through the city of Toledo (capital of Castilla-La Mancha), holds significant implications. Firstly, it determines the impact of pollution on the upstream tributaries flowing through the Community of Madrid. Secondly, it affects the potential transfer of water from the upper section of the river to the Mediterranean via the Tagus-Segura water transfer.

This hydraulic infrastructure, established at the outset of Spanish democracy in 1979 and spanning over 240 kilometers, interconnects both watersheds, facilitating irrigation across approximately 240,000 hectares of intensive fruit and vegetable farming. These products are primarily earmarked for export to European countries and are cultivated in regions like Murcia, the southern part of Valencia (Alicante), and Eastern Andalusia (Almería), which have predominantly been governed by right-wing parties for the last two decades.

According to the Central Union of Irrigators of the Tagus-Segura Aqueduct (SCRATS), a reduction of water transfers by half through the Tagus-Segura transfer would signify the loss of 22,255 direct and indirect jobs and an estimated decrease of  927 million in regional production, according to a report by economists from Murcia.

For decades, numerous environmental associations have been denouncing the alarming condition of the Tagus River's water, attributing it to poor water treatment and regular wáter transfers. One prominent figure in this advocacy is Alejandro Cano, the president of the Platform in Defence of the Tagus River and a key member of the New Water Culture Foundation. This social and professional movement emerged in the 1990s in opposition to the Ebro water transfer project and currently advocates for a paradigm shift in water management toward more equitable and sustainable models.

According to the Ministry for Ecological Transition, up to 74% of Spanish territory is at risk of desertification due to the climate crisis and the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, particularly water. While intensive and industrialized irrigated crops represent only 20% of the cultivated area, they consume up to 80% of the total water usage in Spain. With almost 4 million hectares under irrigation, Spain stands as one of the primary water consumers in Europe.

Citizen engagement and mobilization on environmental affairs in Spain have been very modest so far. However, the political agenda has been evolving to include a growing debate on ecological issues. An illustrative example occurred last year when a popular legislative initiative, garnering more than 640,000 signatures, succeeded in granting legal recognition to the Mar Menor, located in the Region of Murcia, as the first European ecosystem with such recognition.

In general terms, right-wing parties, such as the PP and Vox, support the development of infrastructures (dams, transfers) to increase or maintain water supply, defending the productivity associated with wáter. They consider a more liberal water management framework to be the most efficient way to conserve water. Vox proposes that water and its supply be governed by market laws and private ownership to reduce waste. On the other hand, left-wing parties propose the opposite, seeking to prohibit the 'commodification' of water and promoting moderation or reduction of consumption, even at the expense of transforming economic practices, especially in agriculture and tourism. In a context scarcity, identity issues are used to mobilize voters, making it difficult to reach a consensus on shared water resource management at the national level.