Water conservation is a critical issue for life and for sustainable development. In recent years, Spain has become one of the most water-stressed industrialised countries in the world. This situation is threatening landscapes and the biosphere in Spain, putting at risk the economy and local lifestyles of its inhabitants. As the country is currently experiencing one of the worst drought episodes in living memory, international observers have been able to observe and discuss the effectiveness of local initiatives to rationalise water use and promote water conservation. The municipal experiences of water conservation in Spain may offer valuable insights for local government experts interested in comparative cases of water usage and conservation.
Cyclical Draughts and Climate Change
The climate of large areas of the Iberian Peninsula depends largely on the Mediterranean Sea. Although the country has three distinct climatic zones – the maritime, the mountainous and the continental – the influence of this sea in the winds and the weather patterns it generates can be felt throughout the peninsula. Furthermore, the Mediterranean is almost a self-contained body of water, which makes changes in temperature far more difficult to achieve. This makes the Mediterranean basin one of the most vulnerable areas to global warming in the whole world. A warmer sea translates into mutually reinforcing weather phenomena such as wildfires, torrential rain patterns and severe droughts.
Even though Spain has suffered three significant episodes of prolonged and intense drought in the last 40 years (1982-84, 1991-96, and 2005-09), and an additional four intense and short periods (1975-76, 1987-88, 2000-01, and 2017-18) the current drought is already leaving some of the harshest images in living memory. For example, some Catalan water reservoirs are currently below 10% of their capacity. Even usually rainy Galicia, in the Atlantic North-West, has seen the emergence of ghost towns previously hidden underwater in their reservoirs.
Spain happens to be one of the highest users of water per capita in Europe. The country is a key exporter of agricultural products, and it is the third-largest EU member in agricultural land use. This strategic sector accounts for over 80% of the water used in the country, even though up to 77% of the agricultural surface is already being irrigated with efficient localised systems.
Households and tourist facilities account for most of the remaining water use: studies consistently show that tourists use around 400L of water a day in hotels – which already have water-saving measures in place – close to double compared to Spanish residents. Public uses, industrial uses and the construction sector combined represent under 5% of the total water usage.
The conflicts between farmers who fear water prices and crop failures could end their livelihoods and environmental regulations have caused political issues such as the European Commission of Doñana National Park defence against Andalusia’s autonomic government plan to use water from the UNESCO’s protected marshes to expand local irrigation. To a lesser extent, Spain has also experienced political tensions around the pollution due to agricultural and tourist exploitation of large bodies of water such as the Albufera (in Valencia) or the Mar Menor (in Murcia).
Water Conservation Governance and Local Initiatives
Some Spanish cities have recently activated exceptionality protocols against drought, which include measures such as temporarily turning off ornamental fountains, minimising garden irrigation or limiting the use of water for street cleaning by municipal companies. However, these exceptional measures are in addition to protocols and mechanisms adopted in previous years. Among the most effective are infrastructure modernisation, efficiency plans, and reforestation campaigns.
Many of the urban supply networks around the world are decaying and nearing the end of their life cycle. For example, in London, nearly half of its distribution network is over 100 years old. Outdated systems result in potential contamination, water losses, and difficulties in installing new control and automation systems. Spanish cities have been investing heavily in urban sewage and supply infrastructures for the last few decades, allowing municipalities of all sizes to install sensors and adopt technology-enabled policies to rationalize water usage. The UN Water Action Hub compiles several municipal projects on this area of action in Spain.
Over time, nearly all Spanish municipalities and public entities of a certain size – such as universities – have adopted protocols for the management and efficient use of water. These protocols are based on legislation at the level of the autonomous communities and always include sections on issues such as the discharge of industrial liquids to the integral sanitation system, standards of how much water should be used in different services, and above all governance protocols in case exceptional measures are necessary to control water usage. City councils such as Valencia have created a specific department to control the integral water cycle, which reports directly to the mayor and has authority over building permits. In Barcelona, the local protocol indicates that since 2018 “large water consumers” – i.e., companies and organizations consuming more than 7,000 m3/year – must draw up a water efficiency plan for their facilities. These plans are reviewed and ratified by the technical team of the city council.
Municipalities in the Mediterranean basin and the interior of Spain have experienced how the disappearance of forests has brought with it worse water management and even desertification. Indiscriminate logging has been reducing the size of forests, as have serious wildfires in recent years. Deprived of tree roots to hold the soil in place, the torrential rains typical of its climate wash the fertile soil into the sea. Furthermore, without bushes and trees’ roots to filter rainwater and direct it to the aquifers, the soil loses its moisture, and its fertility decreases exponentially. For municipalities, reforestation actions are expensive and difficult to manage with a shrinking and ageing staff. Nevertheless, cities throughout the national territory such as Alicante and Zamora and Beirut have formed alliances with private foundations to reforest with native species with great success.
What can be learned from a challenging year?
Spain’s drought situation is far from positive. Unfortunately, in the current situation, governments and society can do little to offer immediate solutions. Worse still, in times of crisis like this, there is a danger that citizens whose livelihoods are in danger – such as farmers – will want to alleviate their situation by drawing on water from natural reserves, or by ignoring protocols for the rational use of water. Pandering to them can be a political temptation, as can be seen in the case of Doñana.
There is a silver lining to this situation. The maturity of Spanish municipalities and administrations in the field of integrated water management allows for meaningful comparisons and evaluations of their local policies in these challenging times. In the next few months, internal actors and international observers will be able to evaluate the effectiveness of infrastructure investments and local policies. This will help to avoid mistakes and determine whether the best practices in Spain remain appropriate and if they are useful to them. At the end of the day, it is only a matter of time before water management becomes part of every local agenda – if it has not already done so.