Drought in Spain, which is going through yet another heat wave this year, is so extreme that virtually no aspect of daily life has been left untouched.
Dishes are left unwashed overnight when water allowances run out. Cows raised for gourmet meat risk going thirsty. Tourists heading to a water sports destination are met with hard mud. These stark scenes are taking place as Europe endures its driest period in at least 500 years, a situation that’s been made more likely — and worse — by climate change.
“We had light rains toward the end of May and in June that helped the agriculture sector and lowered wildfire risk,” says Sarai Sarroca, the director of the Catalan meteorological agency. “But nothing to the scale of what we need to alleviate 34 straight months of drought.”
Greenhouse gases emitted from human activities have warmed the planet 1.2C since pre-industrial times on average. But Europe as a whole is warming at least twice as fast, and Catalonia even more so, with temperatures 2.7C higher in 2022 than the average between 1960 and 1990, according to the meteorological agency.
This week parts of Spain have been facing a severe heat wave, with the national weather forecasting agency Aemet issuing an “extreme risk” alert for the southern region of Andalusia on Wednesday.
In Catalonia the heat, along with historically low rainfall levels, has left reservoirs in a dire state. They’re currently at just 30% of their capacity, below the average of 46.5% for the whole of Spain.
North of the metropolitan region of Barcelona, home to over 3 million people, is the Sau reservoir. It was created in the 1960s by flooding Sant Romà de Sau, a village dating back from the 10th century. For decades, the sight of the former village’s Romanic church bell tower peeking from the waters was an easy indication of whether levels were high or low. Today the entire building sits exposed, bone dry, surrounded by scorched mud.
In February, there was so little water in the Sau reservoir that authorities grew concerned it would mix with the mud at the bottom, depleting oxygen levels and killing all the fish living in the basin. If that happened, what little water that was left would be unfit for human consumption. So the Catalan government hired fishermen to capture and destroy 4,000 fish to prevent them from contaminating the supply. The remaining water was salvaged by transferring it to a second reservoir nearby.
By April, water levels at Sau had dropped to just 6.5%. There was so little surface area covered by water that firefighting planes won’t be able to collect water if they are called into service to extinguish wildfires in the summer. Two other reservoirs in the region are in similarly poor shape, so firefighters are searching for alternatives as they prepare for the wildfire season.
On weekends, dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people have driven through the narrow roads that lead to the reservoir to snap selfies against the striking landscape — the rocky cliffs, muddy puddles of water and ruins of the old village. Tourists have caused traffic jams that hinder the work of officials tasked with monitoring water quality. A couple of times, visitors got stuck on the muddy shores, which prompted the government to consider restrictions on entry to the reservoir.
“People like to see misfortune,” says Albert Pladevall, the owner of a small kayaking business that operates in Sau. “Down there in the cities they might be worried about drought, but they open the tap and water comes out of it.”
For years, Pladevall guided visitors through the reservoir’s waters so they could row around the church bell — always a crowd-pleaser. Earlier this year, the government banned all water activities for months in order to limit the amount of people in the area.
On June 26 local businesses, including Pladevall’s, were allowed to reopen amid warnings that they would go broke.
“Everything is very uncertain,” says Pladevall, who worries the rains of the past few weeks offer little relief over the long term. “If the drought keeps on going, we’ll have to reinvent ourselves somehow.”
The impacts continue downstream. A local hotel that used to pump water directly from the Sau reservoir now has to buy it from trucks — an expense that threatens its survival. The nearby village of Vilanova de Sau, home to about 300 people, is pumping water from a stream nearby because quality levels in the reservoir remain low, mayor Joan Riera says.
Farmers are struggling too. Rafel Rodenas is one of a handful of cattle ranchers in Spain to raise Wagyu-certified beef, selling the meat directly to Michelin star-rated restaurants in the area. For the meat to maintain its certification, each of his 170 cows and two bulls need to drink between 70 and 100 liters of water per day, graze on pesticide-free grass that grows on rain and eat as little as fodder as possible.
This year, the grass barely reached a few inches tall in the middle of spring, when it should have been about two feet high. That forced his cows to look for fresh grass inside the forest, where they usually only feed in the summer. Rains in May and June helped improv the situation, but Rodenas fears during the traditionally dry summer months he’ll have to feed them leaves cut directly from oak trees — an ancient trick farmers in the region used to resort to in winter months. After that, his only plan is to hope for the best.
“The fields have no time to regenerate because of the lack of water,” Rodenas says. “The price of hay has increased fourfold and the worry is that we won’t find any during the summer because these crops depend on rain and in many farms they haven’t grown enough to harvest.”
Further away from the reservoirs, at least 80 villages this year have had their pipes turned off for most of the night, forcing them to depend on trucks that deliver water every morning. The controversial measure was implemented after realizing that air accumulates overnight in the increasingly empty pipes. As temperatures rise in the morning, that air expands, increasing the risk of pipes bursting and causing leaks.
In the village of L’Espluga de Francolí, where its 3,700 residents have no water from 10pm to 5am, Joana Pérez has had to adapt. She keeps a stash of bottled water to keep the coffee machine running at the bar that she owns and every day she fills up large buckets of water to make sure she has enough to refill the toilet tanks and do the dishes.
“It’s more expensive, but I’ve become used to it,” Pérez says. “There’s nothing else we can do, really.”
Not far away is Bar Del Casal, which for decades has had a 1,500-liter tank. It used to come in handy the few times a year when there were one-off water cuts, says owner Enric Solé. Now it’s the lifeline of a business operating from 8am to 1am, serving hundreds of meals and drinks every day.
“Even if we have a secure water supply, we are really careful about the water we use,” Soler says. “Just twice we ran out of water in the [tank] and had to leave the dirty dishes until the next day.”
Soler is also the owner of the village’s swimming pool bar, which opens only in summer but doesn’t have a tank. “We leave the dishes dirty until the next day — we close earlier at night and open earlier in the morning too.”
In an attempt to use the little water that’s left as wisely as possible, authorities have declared an emergency over half of Catalonia. The measures impact close to 500 villages, including Barcelona. They include shutting down all decorative public fountains and bans on filling swimming pools and using drinking water to clean streets or buildings.
Barcelonians are used to water scarcity and authorities routinely run campaigns on how to save water. The Catalan government limits water use to 230 liters per person per day, a metric that includes industry, tourism and agriculture consumption. Households in Barcelona are keeping well within those restrictions. Water use in homes is about 103 liters per person per day — well below Spain’s average of 134.
The city has also started tapping its underground water reserves over the past few months. For the first time ever, that groundwater is being used to irrigate public gardens.
Every morning, large trucks fill up and deliver water to the city’s different parks. Grass lawns haven’t been irrigated for months, but trees and bushes are fed using techniques like drip irrigation. Their survival is needed to keep the city cool during the hottest months of the year. Over summer months, local authorities set up climate refuges in parks and public buildings so people can cool off when the heat reaches dangerous levels.
Local authorities hope all these measures will guarantee water supply for the whole population throughout the summer but further restrictions could be put in place in autumn. In May and June, rainfall delivered just over 200 liters per square meter but at least the same amount is needed to truly alleviate the situation, says Sarroca at the Catalan meteorological agency.
Adding to the concerns is the El Niño phenomenon arising over the Pacific Ocean this year, altering weather patterns globally and bringing higher temperatures in the western Mediterranean. Globally, last month was the world’s hottest June in at least three decades, while the first week in July was the hottest ever.
“Two years of record heat in a row would be a catastrophe in this context of drought,” Sarroca says. “But it’s something we can’t rule out in this world dominated by climate change.”
Visual media produced in partnership with Outrider FoundationPhoto Editing by Jody Megson
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.