Wednesday, July 6

Climate change forces Spain to use less water and regenerate deteriorated rivers and aquifers

Less and less water and, in addition, in poor condition. The water shortage as a result of the climate crisis forces Spain to recover the large number of damaged bodies of water while requiring a more sustainable use, that is, spending less. The reduction of available water “advises” decreases in use between 5% and 15% from 2030 to the middle of the century, according to the Ecological Transition calculations for the new hydrological planning.

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Environmentally repairing water bodies is an imperative that has hardly been addressed in recent years. If in 2015 only 54% of surface waters – rivers, lakes or reservoirs – were in good condition, in 2021 it has barely improved and is 57.8%, according to data from the hydrographic confederations. In the case of groundwater things have gotten worse: it has gone from having 62% of the aquifers in good condition to 59%.

Recover the water bodies in poor condition

In order to reverse the damage, the plans of the confederations admit that there must be an impact on obtaining mandatory ecological flows for river courses and the control of overexploitation and contamination in aquifers. The ecological flow is the minimum amount of water for ecosystems to exist in the rivers: fish, amphibians, insects or mammals in the courses, in addition to the aquatic and riverbank vegetation. Without a base flow, they are not viable.

The most prominent case is that of the Tagus River. The previous planning, which covered from 2015 to 2021, did not establish ecological flows but a figure called “legal flow”, which did not satisfy environmental needs and was annulled by the Supreme Court in 2019. However, the ecological flows of several Spanish rivers they have been around 10% of their natural flow.

In addition to allowing enough water to flow through the riverbed (that is, not reservoir), the ecological continuity of the courses requires the elimination of a multitude of obstacles in the form of disused infrastructures that make river continuity impossible. Or, at least, “make those constructions that are in operation permeable”, clarifies the general director of Water of the Ministry of Ecological Transition, Teodoro Estrela. The idea is that the water runs throughout the course.

In this sense, the Ministry assures that in the plans that the different hydrographic confederations have developed there is a decided commitment to the renaturation of urban river sections. It is, once again, that the river contains habitats instead of being a channel through which the current is channeled. A paradigmatic example of these actions is the project to re-naturalize the Manzanares river as it passes through Madrid.

The recovery of the aquifers has more to do with the brake on the extraction of liquid above the capacity to be refilled and the dumping of agro-livestock waste. Estrela has especially pointed out the nitrates from fertilizers and intensive livestock that have put a thousand control points at risk in some 199 groundwater masses throughout Spain.

Adapting to the climate crisis: sustainable use

Spain will have less water due to the climate crisis. The drafts of the hydrological plans, which are now submitted to public information until the end of the year, admit that it will be prudent to reduce the amount of water used. And it puts some figures: 5% for 2030 and 15% for the middle of the century. Knowing how to use less increases water security. Spain consumed in 2018 (latest data from the INE) 19,700 cubic hectometres (hm3). 78% was for agriculture. With this level of consumption, the reduction would amount to 986 hm3 in the first phase and 2,900 in 2050. In addition, these plans will reduce by 1,700 hm3 per year the water allocations that were left as a “reserve” for different uses in the 12 state confederations. “Meet the demands of water in a way that is compatible with its good condition to ensure quality and quantity”, is defined by Transición Ecológica.

To guarantee supply, the government plans to “balance supply and demand, especially in territories suffering from water stress.” This means that, in places with scarcity problems, new activities that imply intensive use of water are not developed. “Desalination and reuse will be given greater prominence.” This line of action raises blisters in areas with a powerful irrigated agricultural sector such as the southeast of the peninsula where they consider that the price of desalinated water is ruinous for their industry. In addition, Spain has a problem with the treatment of urban wastewater for which it must pay a periodic fine to the European Union until it complies with the legislation.

The fourth vice president of the Government, Teresa Ribera, considers that the hydrological plans “cannot continue to support past practices that have led us to over-exploitation of aquifers, the contamination of water bodies and the deterioration of our rivers.”

Linked to the climate crisis is the foreseeable increase in extreme weather events such as torrential rainfall. Those extremely high intensity rains in a short time are the trigger for floods and avenues, the deadliest natural disaster in Spain. The naturalization of rivers and the regeneration of channels and wetlands are one of the formulas pointed out by technicians to cushion the damage of these phenomena: avoiding eating the banks with buildings and infrastructures, not channeling rivers or draining lagoons are part of the so-called “solutions based in nature “designed to tackle part of this problem.

As symbols, the confederations in whose demarcation are located natural environments closely linked to water such as Doñana and Las Tablas de Daimiel, which suffer the plundering of the water on which they depend, L’Albufera de València or the Mar Menor in Murcia, they have specific protection chapters in the documents. These environments exemplify the accelerated damage based on depleting aquifers and polluting with discharges of agrochemical remains. “Nothing is more important for social, environmental and economic cohesion than ensuring water,” said Vice President Ribera.