How are farmers and hotels dealing with the Spanish drought?

Standing in a field of apple trees in Catalonia, fruit and grain farmer Ramón Falguera looks concerned.

Last year the fruit harvest fell by about a third and the wheat harvest by half due to a lack of rain and restrictions on water use in this area of ​​northeastern Spain.

The water channel used for irrigating the farmlandwhich flows from rivers that rise in the Pyrenees, was only opened for a month last spring, for the first time since it was built 160 years ago.

The drought Considered the worst in 200 years, it is hitting large parts of the region after more than three years of low rainfall and record temperatures due to climate change.

With no end in sight, farmers like Falguera are concerned that the water they depend on for irrigation will be turned off again.

How do Spain’s water restrictions affect farmers?

In early February, as reservoir levels fell below 16 percent in parts of the region, the government declared a state of emergency in many areas of Catalonia.

Pere Aragonès, head of the regional government, announced restrictions on several sectors. The amount of water that the agricultural sector – the largest water user – could use to irrigate crops was reduced by as much as 80 percent.

For Falguera, a lack of rainfall and local water restrictions will likely mean two irrigations this year instead of the usual eight.

According to David Saurí, a geographer at the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona and an expert in water management, the situation was already critical for irrigation farmers in parts of Catalonia.

In some parts of the region, it is the third year that many farmers have been unable to adequately irrigate their crops. This has affected entire communities. Saurí calls it ‘a catastrophe’.

In March, Aragonés relaxed some of the measures originally imposed on the agricultural and livestock industries, following pressure from these sectors.

‘Bad guys’ and ‘good guys’ of water use

Although the agricultural sector is only responsible for 3 percent of the region’s economy, many argue that it should be seen as an essential industry. Instead, farmers in many parts of the region feel “mistreated” due to the lack of water, Saurí says, “while other economic sectors do not have these problems.”

This also includes the tourism sector. Although the sector is prohibited from filling swimming pools With fresh water available in hotels and campsites in many areas, Aragonès rejected calls to impose further restrictions on the sector, such as banning cruise ships from docking at Barcelona port.

On March 20, 40 activists reportedly cut off the water supply to Barcelona’s tourist office, calling for more extreme restrictions on the sector.

According to Saurí, the average tourist in Barcelona is estimated to use at least 60 percent more water than the average resident. But he is quick to acknowledge that tourism is not a monolith.

“Tourism is not what we would call the ‘bad guy’ of the movie… but there are a lot of ‘bad guys’ and a lot of ‘good guys’. Not all tourism is the same,” says Saurí, explaining that people in campsites use relatively little water compared to those staying in luxury hotels.

He added that in agriculture and livestock farming there are also major interests and companies.

The tourism sector is committed to desalination

A sezilinization plant for use in Lloret de Mar.

A sezilinization plant for use in Lloret de Mar. – HIDRO water

According to Saurí, the tourism sector has been implementing water-saving methods for several years to reduce their bills. These include more efficient showers and toilets.

But in one of Catalonia’s coastal tourist destinations, Lloret de Mar, the local catering association is now going a step further.

Due to the current restrictions, the hotels in Lloret have purchased a mobile desalination machine for a reported €1.5 million for around 200 hotels.

“Once we remove the salt [from the seawater] we fill the swimming pools of the hotels,” says Enric Dotras, president of the association. Currently the machine can generate 50 cubic meters of water per hour, but he adds that this will be increased in the future if necessary. He claims that enough water will be generated.

“We are a tourist destination … where normally tourists enjoy the installations [in the hotels],” he says. “We need to keep this in mind if we want to sustain these businesses and the indirect and direct jobs that come with them.”

Why are desalination plants controversial?

Tourism represents more than 20 percent of Catalonia’s local economy.

In January alone, a million tourists stayed in hotels in Catalonia, and more than 22,000 people worked in hotels. This normally rises dramatically in the summer months, raising concerns about increased pressure on water resources.

According to Saurí, tourism in the region will suffer if it does not rain this summer. But he warns that the tourism sector’s private use of a desalination plant could cause frustration among other sectors that do not have the economic capacity to pay for a plant.

“[Farmers] are told not to irrigate because there is a drought, and they see a campsite or a hotel nearby… with a full pool,” he says.

Greenpeace has also raised the alarm about the environmental impact of desalination plants.

A recent Accenture report shows that the plants increase energy consumption up to 23 times more than conventional water sources. It highlighted the significant risks to marine life posed by the discharge of brine, the residue left after desalination.

“It can kill the entire marine flora,” says Saurí, adding that it must be managed very well.

What are the alternatives to Spanish water?

Despite these environmental risks, many in the agricultural sector also see desalination as one of the few ways to provide enough water to keep industries afloat.

The Catalan government announced last year that it would invest almost 500 million euros from EU funds in desalination plants, but it will take years before any positive effect is noticeable.

Many believe that water systems across the region also need to be updated. According to the region’s water management agency, the Agència Catalana de l’Aigua, Catalonia lost a quarter of its water in 2022 due to leaks.

Pol Dunyó Ruhí, an organic smallholder in Barcelona province, says water reuse and other alternatives should be launched to improve water management.

“I think the restrictions are absurd and really unequal,” he says, but adds that some farmers are using wasteful irrigation techniques when they could be using more efficient methods.

“I don’t know if it’s because the farmers refuse, or because there is no support for this kind of installation… but it’s nonsense,” he says.

He also notes that restrictions should be applied with an ecological approach, emphasizing how farmers Cultivating vast fields of corn – a water-consuming crop produced to feed industrial chickens and pigs – is treated no differently than those who use water more wisely.

For Falguera, more modern irrigation systems are also an essential way to reduce water consumption. This includes dripping irrigation: supplying water directly to plants through a network of pipes or conduits.

“With modernized irrigation systems we could make very good use of the water we have this year,” he says. Four irrigations would be sufficient for a fruit tree watered using a modernized irrigation system, he added. “Water would not be wasted.”

Saurí notes that it is important to ensure that farmers do not have to stop growing. “If it doesn’t rain this summer, I honestly don’t know what will happen,” he says.

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