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Fact Checker’s dossier: Spain’s water crisis and its consequences


History of droughts in Spain

The drought in Spain has always been an important issue. There are researchers who have studied the droughts in Spain among the last three hundred years. Historically, the years 1725, 1741, 1803 and 1879 were one of the driest periods years ago. The year 1725 is remembered as the “year without harvests” because of the lack of groceries and the bad consequences it had for the inhabitants during that period of time. 

It was not until the 1950 when scientists started to study the rains, but we can know about these data because of investigators studying the earth, plants and several documents. One of this proofs was the initiative during the first part of the 20th century to turn the rain-fed fields into irrigated fields. This policy was created to fight against the lack of rain in the country during the year. 

During the 20th century the situation did not become better and the water issue led to historical changes in the political history of the country. During the 1930, there was a big drought that made the social and politic stress even bigger than it was. Farmers and peasants started to complain about the situation and social and economic rebellions led into the foundation of the Second Republic in 1931. Because of this situation, the following years, the politicians put a lot of effort in trying to increase the amount of water that could be stored and improve the way it was conduced to the different places in the country. This effort had a consequence: Spain has 1700 reservoirs and is the country with more storage per capita in the world. 

During the recent years, the driest episodes in the Spanish country happened between 1980-83 and between 1990-94. Benito R. Mallol wrote in El País in 1981 that the drought they were living at that moment resulted from the lack of water in different regions of Spain. People did not consider this shortness of water in several parts of Spain as a big issue, so it ended being a problem that surrounded the country for the next three years. That drought did not suppose a problem for the reservoirs, but it was in the agricultural sector. The whole country, excluding the North part, had a lack of humidity on the fields, so the vegetation could not grow properly. 

Afterwards, the drought of 1990-95 happened, and this time, the absence of water was not so remarkable as the one Spain had in the previous decade, but it had such a great impact on the population. At least 11 million people were restricted to the use of water. M. R. Llamas, who works in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, defined this period in an article called: “Considerations about the Drought in Spain between 1991 to 1995”, not as a normal period in Spain, not as an important issue. He declares that drought is something temporary that happens in this country because of its characteristics in a cyclical way. The main problem is that the reservoirs and basins are not ready to supply the necessary amount of water during those periods. Some authors say that the drought is something normal and attached to our climate, and it is our responsibility to adapt to it.

Current data

After these historic aridity, Spain is suffering in 2017 one of the hottest years since decades ago. In fact, the Governmental Metereological Academy attested that the temperature is 1.7% higher than the average. This situation has led the country to a dryer climate with several consequences, such as the reduction of a 23% of the level of rain during May. As a result, the Duero river basin is in a 49% of its capacity (while the average was 83.7%) and the Tajo river basin is in a 49.6% of its capacity (while the average used to be 72.9%). 

The Government is now aware of the situation Spain, because they only guarantee the amount of water given without cuttings until the end of the year. To solve the problem, they are trying to adapt the law so they can reduce the use of water in the country. The Government declared in the Royal Decree of Drought, published on the 9th June 2017, that the water reserves were a 56% minor that they used to be five years ago. After this data, the Government was reunited to solve the problem. As a solution, they thought about some actions:

Despite the fact that the North region of Spain is much more humid than the rest of the territory, it has suffered the aridity since the end of April 2017. Some agricultural workers, as Europa Press informed, complained about the millionaire losses after the scarcity of rain destroyed the cultivation. Besides, the higher temperatures contributed to the destruction of the fields and farming resources. 

In these pictures, it is easy to see the difference among the surface of Spain between the years 2016 and 2017: 

The last hydrological year reached a level of rains 12 points below the average, and AEMET said that the most affected region as that reduction of the water level was the North of Spain, a tendency that has not been seen during the previous years.

What causes the drought ?

The Royal Decree let us know that the resources of water have not been used properly during the last years. However, there are many factors that influence the drought. We have already commented the cyclical functioning of the dehydration of the Spanish country. 

AEMET explained that there is an anticyclone placed over the Iberian peninsula that acts as a barrier and diverts the rain to the North and the South. This anticyclone is called Azores High and it produces insufficient rain during the year. 

Right now, the regions which are more affected by this drought are Galicia, the both plateaus in Spain, Andalucía and the Canary Islands. Nevertheless, the North-West part of the country does not have this problem often, because of its humid climate. 

Spain is divided in 8 confederations and 150 areas – 37 of them are in an emergency situation, which means that the country is in the gravest level of drought.

Serious consequences

The consequences of drought are really huge and affect different fields. The main one is the result of aridity on the ground and, as a result, the harvest and all the agricultural goods do not grow properly. Besides, the vegetation dries and the ecosystems modify as well as the environment does. Because of this, some animals change their behaviors. Most of them die because of dehydration or because they need to change their habitat. 

The grocery i ndustry is also affected too, since most of the goods come from agricultural services such as farms, fields, harvests… This situation increases the prices of those goods and it ultimately affects the economic industry and all the citizens, who depend on that industry. 

As the amount of water is reduced, the dissolving capacity is also reduced so the pollution increases and waste wins presence in the environment. Eventually, it affects the human daily life, because of the reduction of the water available to be used as the amount needs to be rationalized.


Situation of the Watersheds in Spain



Quality of Water

As it has been commented during the articles, the water problem has become an important issue to keep in mind for al the Spanish citizens and the Government. This problem is always summarized as a problem regarding the quantity of water we have in Spain. Nevertheless, Spain has another problem with water: its quality. Pollution in rivers is now an important issue that should be discussed when it comes to this topic.

The European Union wanted all the bodies of water to reach a favorable ecological situation by 2015. A Spanish newspaper, The ABC, revealed that four out of ten rivers are polluted in the Spanish country.  

There are 4390 bodies of water in the country and, as the newspaper informed in 2017, only 55% of them pass the quality test, a 43% do not have enough characteristics to reach the quality levels and a 2% of those bodies has not been studied yet. Most of these bodies are rivers. The problem is found when it comes to looking for the causes of this pollution in the rivers. Some of them are polluted because of punctual pollution, such as rubbish, trash and waste. But others are polluted by causes that scientist can not determine properly, for example the water used by farmers and contains chemicals and comes back to the rivers due to the watering systems.

Water represents 75% of the Earth’s surface, but a 97.5% of the water is not available to be used by humans because is salty. Therefore, we only dispose of a 2.5% of the water to be used. 

How is pollution in rivers produced?

Rafael Seiz works for WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and is a professional regarding environmental  management. Seiz said that most of the materials that stain the water are nitrates and phosphates and he insists on another problem: the deporation system. This system does not work and a part of the water is not cleaned as it should be, so there are places, where the depuration should be more advance and stronger, where the water in not purified. As a consequence, a 15 % of the population is using toxic water.

There is another problem in the North region of the country that bears in the industry. The bigger industries have always settled on this part of the country since the XVIII century. That is the reason why there are a lot of pesticides in the Basque region or in Galicia. There is a lot of salt in some parts of Barcelona and toxic products and waste in Tarragona, where the Ebro river is located. 

Some rivers are also polluted with drugs and medicines. 

The main problem is that the Spanish Government does not have enough money to start solving the problem. After economic studies, the amount of money required to work on the quality issue reaches 11 800 million euros, but the Government only guarantees 1100 million by 2021. The regional Governments would be the ones that should pay the rest of the money, thus the citizens would pay much more money. Currently, it is not possible to solve the problem.  

 Water contaminants

  • Pathogenic microorganisms: bacteria that come from the dregs and pollute the water, so they can finally go inside other bodies which are not infected and produce diseases…
  • Organic waste and rubbish produced by humans or animals such as stool and other materials that used oxygen to be decomposed. 
  • Inorganic plant nutrients such as nitrate and phosphate
  • Organic compounds: fuel, petroleum, plastic, detergents… 
  • Sediments and suspended materials: pieces of ground and land
  • Radioactive substances and thermal pollution that comes from hot water produced by energy systems and industrial processes.

Pollution in rivers does not only affect the water, it also affects the environment and all the life that surround each river such as plants and animals. Most of these rivers are used for the human consume of water, so this should worry us much more than it does. Rivers contain vegetation that cleans the water, so if this vegetation is affected by the water, would eventually affect us. 

Besides, a 70% of the water we human beings consume is used to water the plants, so this is an important aspect of the Spanish economy. If the water used in farming comes from polluted rivers, this could heavily affect to our development and our health.

How is water managed in Spain?

To manage the hydrological resources of Spain, there are specialized administrations, called basin organisms (Organismos de Cuenca). These were created in 1926 and they had the principal duty of constructing the hydraulic infrastructure. During the last decades, they also had the responsibility to protect and promote the sustainable use of water, which has been reinforced with the implementation of the law concerning water from the European Union in 2000. These institutions have other organisms of enquiry to increase the participation in the process of making decisions. 

The majority of that divide the basins that gather different regions, and all of them are under the leadership of the Environmental Ministry. Therefore, they are part of the administration and at the same time, they are tools to make decisions about the cities, towns and basins.

“The Special Plans of Drought” are the result of the compliance of the 27th article of the 10/2001 law, from the 5th of July, from the National Hydrological Plan that establishes as the goal of these plans, the reduction of the environmental, economical and social impacts that come from the drought. These plans have to include the rules of operating systems and the measures to apply regarding the use of the public hydraulic field during the different stages of the drought. 

Around 60 % of the towns in Spain are supplied by private companies that are able to function thanks to the licenses given by the government. Aigües de Barcelona has the 50 % of those private licenses that the government gives. There is still another percentage that is not managed by private companies, because it is managed by public institutions or the owners of wells. 

Despite that, in Valencia we find a curiosity about managing water that does not contemplate private companies, because there is a court called “El Tribunal de les Aigües de València” (the water’s tribunal of Valencia). It is a legal institution that resolves the conflicts created by the use of water to irrigate the fields surrounding Valencia. In 2008 it was declared an Intangible cultural heritage by the UNESCO.

Consequences of the drought 

With the lack of rain during this year, the water level in basins from the South-East of Spain has been reduced, and also, in an alarming way, the ones from the north- east. The water level is around 30 % of the capacity of these basins, which had not happened since 1990. Even the climate in Spain has always been quite dry, with regular droughts, the one that’s happening this year is the most intense of the last 20 years. 

One example of the effects of this phenomenon could be the appearance of towns that were hidden inside the reservoirs since the 60’s. That is due to the fact that their capacity has been reduced in an extreme way. 

The fact that there are lots of fires happening, especially in the mountains, is due to the droughts. In summer, because of the high temperatures and the dry atmosphere, the vegetation dehydrates quite fast. This situation ends in a dangerous state of possibilities of fires the months after. One of the most recent examples happened just two months ago, in October 2017, mostly in Galicia, but it also affected Asturias and even Portugal. Only in the region of Galicia, declared it is president Alberto Núñez Feijóo, that 11 500 hectares were burned during those fires. The worst part of the tragedy is that the investigations head to the conclusion that the fires were caused on purpose.

Even if it is quite sad to imagine that someone can intentionally harm the beauty of the nature, in this case we can also see one of the best parts of society: empathy, solidarity, generosity and the will to help without receiving anything in exchange. During these fires in October, 4 people lost their lives, and the neighbors of the people affected did not sit back and do anything. Taxi drivers offered free journeys to the people affected that could need them, citizens from towns not affected by the burnings opened their houses to take in those whose houses were in danger or were already burned.
The fire fighters, that had a very hard task to finally finish with all the fires, counted with a lot of help of the galician people, that was terrified to see how their land was getting completely scorched. So, even it was hard times for Galicia, their people showed that the good ones were more than those who started the fires.

“They are more the ones who blow” is the translation of the sentence of that picture, which refers to the union of the people fighting for their land.  

After the fire was over, the consequences did not end there, as all the vegetation was totally burned, what was intended to do was to cover the ashes with stalk, so they could be used as compost to help new vegetation grow. But, things did not happen as planned, because in an unexpected rain, all the ashes and stalk went away a they ended up in the rivers and, after all, in the sea. Consequently the fishermen had trouble to do their job and that was a real problem because Galicia is one of the regions where most of the fish and seafood is caught. Then, the fishermen are having trouble to do their job, and that is a real problem because Galicia is one of the regions where more fish and seafood is caught. 

After all, it’s important to be conscious about the real consequences that the abusive use of water that we do in our society has a bigger impact than we think, and that it affects a lot of different areas of life that we don’t appreciate nowadays, but future generations will have to pay for.

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