A major problem facing the river systems in Spain is that of sustaining the flow in the face of agricultural and urban demands, not to mention thirsty golf courses, especially in the south.
Plans to divert water from the north have met with fierce resistance, but the matter is not dead. In a pre-election speech in Alicante, the week of February 25/08, the leader of the conservative Partido Popular promised that if he was elected he would see that excess water was transferred to those river basins in need of it. There were no specific references, but the implications were clear: water from the north to the south.
Another hurdle comes from the pollution of the rivers from nitrates and phosphates from fertilizers used by farmers. Given, for example, that some 80% of the water demand on the river Tagus is for agriculture, it’s not surprising that the run off from fertilizers should have a wide impact.
One area that has suffered significantly from the increased demands on the river systems is the wetlands. Irrigation of vineyards in Castilla-La Mancha, for example, has reduced the Tablas de Daimiel to a shadow of their former splendour, while the swamps and marshes of the Coto Doñana, south west of Sevilla, have suffered dramatically over the past years.
Both the Tablas and the Coto are National Parks, but even so they cannot do much to prevent the over exploitation of the surrounding aquifers or industrial pollution beyond their perimeters. In 1998, for example, a large area of the Coto was contaminated by millions of cubic metres of toxic waste.
In recent years strawberry and rice cultivation –while improving the lives of the people– has also put a strain on the Coto. The irrigation of strawberries alone, claims the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), is reducing the amount of water flowing into the Coto by up to 50%. (For an excellent summary of the problem in 2013, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jun/28/strawberry-spain-donana-wildlife-iberian-lynx.)
Desalination plants have been suggested as a solution to the water shortage. Spain, in fact, is a world leader in this field, with Spanish companies working in several countries. Desalination plants started in Spain in the 1960s, and have contributed significantly towards the conversion of the parched Almería region into a giant plastic-covered horticultural “glass”house.
Much of the fruit and vegetables from this area head for the supermarkets of Northern Europe, so that pressure to impose some form of control has repercussions beyond Spain’s borders. Offsetting the gains brought about by desalination is the explosion of development in the already saturated south coast. In 2005 alone, for example, Spain built more than 800.000 new properties (more than Britain, France and Germany combined), mostly along the south coast.
A further strain has been imposed by the illegal digging of boreholes which suck water out of the aquifers. There are estimated to be over 500.000 boreholes in Spain, and every effort to control them has met with fierce resistance.
Finally there is drought! Southern Spain has always been a dry region and the possible effects of global warming have added to the strain. There was a severe drought in the1990s, reservoirs are low and the latest statistics show that since October 1, 2007, Spain had only half the rainfall it normally receives. As a result the Mediterranean coast is suffering the worst drought since 1912, the Minister of the Environment announced in March 2008.
In the same month, some 20 villages in the province of Malaga were desperately looking for new wells as the levels of local reservoirs have dropped to almost 25%… and this after the supposed wet season! Desertification is a real threat in these parts.
A article in the newspaper El País on December 6, 2009, reports that computer models predict a reduction of between 20% and 25% in rainfall in Spain by the end of the century. What is even more striking is current evidence of reduced rain. For the first time in living memory the River Tiétar ran dry this past summer, and water in the dams of the Upper Tagus fell almost 50%. In the mountains of Filabres (Almería), one of the southernmost forests of wild pines in Europe is dying.
For fine coverage of environmental concerns in Spain, look at www.iberianature.com Click Geography, then Environmental Issues in Spain.
For an excellent coverage of the latest water situation in Spain, see: http://www.culturespain.com/2012/03/09/drought-in-spain/
Sept. 21, 2014. According to the newspaper, El Mundo, the province of Alicante in the south east is suffering the worst drought in history. The article starts dramatically: “The products of Alicante are dying of thirst.” The average precipitation for the last 12 months (Aug. 31, 2013-Sept.1, 2014) has been 153.6 liters per square metre compared to an average of 426.4 l/sq.m. between 1981 and 2010. From Aug. 2103 to Sept. 2014, 69.8 l/sq.m. of rain fell in the city of Alicante where normally it could expect around 311 l/sq.m.
The impact on agriculture, a major economic resource heavily dependent on irrigation, has been disastrous. Even drought resistant olive and almond trees are affected. In addition, warmer than usual winters have also contributed to the problem. Exported goods such as artichokes, broccoli, lettuce, celery and potatoes are especially affected. To add fire to the fuel, The European Union has withdrawn subsidies vital for helping alleviate the effects of the drought. For a full report, see El Mundo: http://www.elmundo.es/comunidad-valenciana/2014/09/20/541db0d222601d662d8b457b.html
July 30. 2021. For a disturbing description of the problems faced by smaller communities over water supplies contaminated by nitrates and phosphates, read https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210730-in-spain-dozens-of-villages-struggle-for-drinking-water (unfortunately no photos are available).
Nov. 16,2021. A fine analysis of the overuse of water related to the cost of growing food in the south of Spain: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/16/farmers-are-digging-their-own-graves-true-cost-of-growing-food-in-spains-arid-south
March 2022: For the latest on the fight to protect water for the Coto Doñana, see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/22/uk-supermarkets-urge-andalucia-against-huge-strawberry-farm-expansion