Catalonia faces worst drought on record

Infographic by Cassini group

6 Mar 2024 by The Water Diplomat

Catalonia shortages

Large parts of the northeastern Spanish region  ( autonomous community) of Catalonia are suffering their worst drought on record, leading authorities in the region to declare a drought emergency for some 80% of the population.  This is the third consecutive year of drought for the region, and with low levels of snowfall during the winter, the situation is critical. Officially, such a declaration of a drought emergency takes place once water reservoirs drop below 16% of full storage capacity, and the current measures will affect a population of about 6 million people.  By comparison, in the rest of Spain, the average current reservoir levels are 46%. 

The government has announced the introduction of measures under phase I of its drought response plan for the Ter Llobregat system, which covers a total of 220 municipalities. The drought response system stems from a law passed by the Regional Government of Catalonia - Decree 84/2007 on the adoption of exceptional and emergency measures regarding the use of water resources - during a previous, exceptional drought in 2006/7. During 2008-2009, it was necessary to adopt emergency measures, such as diverting water from the Ebro through a pipeline and supplying drinking water by boat from Marseilles and Almeria (Andalusia).

The current measures include a restriction of domestic water consumption to 200 litres per person per day, a reduction by 80% of water consumption in agriculture, 50% in stock keeping, and 25% in industry and recreational facilities. In the case of the stringent measures being applied to irrigated agriculture, ‘survival’ irrigation of woody and fruit trees and botanical gardens can be carried out if it is done with reclaimed water from a treatment plant or with groundwater. However, this is only allowed if it does not affect water for domestic consumption.

In 2023, the city of Barcelona launched a strategic plan which implied the implementation of a holistic approach to water management at the level of the whole water cycle, from management of the catchment through the value chain through to retail delivery of water and sanitation services. This plan aims amongst other things to increase the guarantee of supply, increase the efficiency of water systems, increase resilience to climate change, and to adapt systems for future requirements.  Already, the city reduced its water consumption from 88 million m³ in 1999 to 61.6 million m³ in 2021. The city has one of the lowest levels of per capita water consumption in Europe at 106 litres per capita per day.  

Already, for the agricultural sector this has meant that the planting of water intensive crops such as alfalfa and corn may have to be halted in some regions.  Many of the grain crops that have been planted cannot be harvested because of the small size of the grains. Fruit crops, both irrigated and rainfed, were also too small to be sold, with grape production down by between 30% and 70%. The wine harvest losses have reportedly increased each year since the beginning of the drought, with losses averaging 5-10% in  2021, 25-50% in 2022, and 50-70% in the past growing season.

In the field of augmentation of supply, previous policies have favoured investments in additional desalination, the enlargement of existing plants, the development of interconnections between water treatment plants, and the encouragement of water-reuse systems.  Spain has announced the intention to invest € 467 million in the development of two desalination plants on the Catalan coast. 

Currently, the option of expanding the Ebro water transfer to the Barcelona metropolitan area has been dismissed. Both the national progressive government and the Catalan government, led by the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), aim to sidestep the revival of longstanding territorial disputes. This scenario is distinguished by the endorsement from pro-independence parties for the progressive national coalition government. This stands in stark contrast to many autonomous communities, which are managed by the Spanish national conservative party Partido Popular in collaboration with the far-right VOX party.

In Spain, the water planning landscape over the past two decades has been fraught with disputes between political parties, autonomous communities, and a range of stakeholders. In Catalonia, issues related to water have, until recently, not been central to the sovereignty debates among left-wing pro-independence parties such as ERC and Junts. The latter has attracted a significant share of the electorate previously aligned with the extinct conservative nationalist party, CIU. However, the growing urgency of these issues, exacerbated by increasingly severe drought conditions, is bringing them to the forefront.

In terms of the Spanish Constitution, Catalonia possesses the authority to manage its internal basins — hydrographic basins confined within the territorial limits of an Autonomous Community—covering 52% of its territory and serving 96% of its population. Despite what appears to be an advantageous position, this mandate has not been without its challenges and controversies.

The Catalan territory is also traversed by the Ebro River basin, the most voluminous river on the Iberian Peninsula. Legally, it constitutes an inter-community basin, shared among six autonomous communities, making its management predominantly reliant on the central government's administration of these waters. The geopolitical dynamics of the Ebro basin are significantly influenced by the upstream location of Aragon (a region preeminent in both area and population) and Catalonia, situated downstream. A principal concern is the establishment of water flows in the Ebro delta, in accordance with the EU Water Framework Directive. The imperative of maintaining an ecological flow to ensure the water's good ecological status influences both the water demands of the basin and the potential for water surpluses. These political struggles are intricately tied to the national hydrological planning.

The debate over water transfers, the enlargement of irrigated zones, or the preservation of river ecosystems extends beyond local boundaries and political agendas. The Ebro topic has featured in the electoral strategies of Catalan political parties, against the backdrop of broader Spanish politics. Thus in 2001, the Partido Popular (PP) supported the idea of diverting water from the Ebro to the Barcelona metropolitan area and to the eastern Mediterranean regions of Valencia and Murcia. This was linked to an agreement between the PP and the Catalan conservative nationalists (CiU), which ultimately enabled José María Aznar to assume the role of Prime Minister of Spain.

In response, large scale protests erupted in Barcelona in 2001, leading to a shift in public favor towards left-wing parties which opposed the water transfer. In 2003, a coalition of three left-wing parties (the Catalan Socialists, Green Left, and left-wing independentists) assumed power in Catalonia for the first time. This government was responsible for repealing the transfer project and initiating the AGUA program, which led to the construction of desalination plants along the Spanish Mediterranean coast in Valencia, Murcia, and Eastern Andalusia—regions long considered strongholds of the Spanish right.

Left-wing Catalan political parties continue to oppose water transfer projects for environmental reasons. The Catalan nationalist center-right party Junts per Catalunya - does not dismiss water transfers but instead subtly refrains from openly advocating for them, instead demanding complete control over water resources within Catalan territory.

However, the Catalan government's insistence on increasing the flow in the Ebro delta, in line with the basin plans outlined by the Water Framework Directive—whether employing an environmentalist rhetoric for delta protection or not—effectively ensures enhanced water availability within its territory. Concurrently, such demands complicate any technical and legal approaches to facilitate water transfers to other regions. This situation further intensifies the calls from the Valencia and Murcia regions, whose tourism and agriculture sectors are advocating for new water transfers.

All in all, the response of water policy in the Catalan region will likely be primarily shaped by recent shifts in the Spanish political landscape. In essence, Catalonia's situation underscores the increasing geopolitical significance of water issues in Spain.

Infographic by Cassini group with thanks to Dr. Darío Salinas Palacios