How to reduce water fragility in a context of drought

Source: Public domain
Source: Public domain

Why can the drought that Catalonia is experiencing today not be blamed solely on climate change? Could the situation of persistent drought be a foreshadowing of what Europe will experience in the coming years? To what extent does the situation have to do with water management policies? What are the steps we need to take from now on? We are trying to provide a summary to answer these questions, about a case that is not isolated and may be the prelude to situations that will arise over the next 50 years.

All too often we focus the debate on meteorological drought on the climate, to which we attribute all the responsibility as the cause of the lack of water. This is happening with the meteorological drought in Catalonia in the winter of 2024. What is really needed is to open the debate on the real problem: the chronic water demand of our economic development model. A thirst for water in all sectors that makes us consume water excessively, exceeding the natural capacity of the available resources.

Even in normal times, we consume more water than would be feasible for our system. One example: in 2019, Spain, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Cyprus experienced the most critical episode of water scarcity ever experienced by any EU country in a season, according to the Water Exploitation Index. This indicator provides information on water scarcity and gives the pressure on freshwater resources and indicates the amount of water withdrawn each year as a proportion of the total available. Water scarcity (also called hydrological drought) is the lack of availability of water for the different uses we put it to, while (meteorological) drought is the lack of rainfall over a long period of time.

A dry, hot winter, without rain and with days close to those of spring. The drought that Catalonia is experiencing this winter of 2024 is an exception on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, which has also become persistent in the north-eastern quadrant of the Iberian Peninsula. Some light rain has opened a window of optimism, but water reserves in the reservoirs stand at 15.01% in mid-February 2024. Catalonia is experiencing a state of exceptionality, which can be consulted on the Generalitat de Catalunya’s Drought Viewer, where it is clear that more than 2/3 of the territory has entered a state of extreme drought in terms of rainfall.

Water and global change

The immediate solution involves halting the demand for water resulting from our economic model, which is outstripping our availability of this essential resource. We need to reflect on our agricultural, urban planning, tourism and industrial model in order to reduce the total amount of water we use and to maintain the health of water bodies and natural ecosystems. This is the only way to reduce the vulnerability of water to global change.

Scientific evidence points to the need for profound changes. From science, some proposals propose a new model of water consumption – today closely linked to construction, tourism, and economic prosperity – by restoring and protecting hydrological systems – rivers, streams and aquifers. In some recent cases, political action has listened to the recommendation of specialised voices that have recommended the demolition of infrastructures affecting the evolution of a dynamic coastline with the evolution of dunes, as in the case of Calafell (Catalonia).

Organisations specialising in water management insist on promoting a change of mentality and a new system of participatory water governance that considers previous experience and the knowledge provided by science. The case, for example, of the demolition of promenades in coastal towns by the Ministry for Ecological Transition makes it possible to renaturalise the coastal strip and give space back to the beach, to minimise the damage caused by sea storms, which are becoming increasingly frequent and devastating due to the climate crisis.

Technology and freshwater

In the medium and long term, reversing this situation means rethinking our socio-economic model for exploiting water resources. In the short term, Catalonia has the Special Drought Plan, which contemplates the use of technology and, therefore, manages scarcity by producing water to meet demand, through solutions such as reuse and desalination. These are useful technological alternatives in the short term to help deal with occasional droughts, but they cannot be sustained over time because they have an immense environmental cost, apart from the economic and energy costs.

The impact of desalination is high: it is necessary to build infrastructures, as well as new ones to transfer desalinated water to the areas where it is needed; it produces emissions into the atmosphere because of construction; and it discharges brine from desalination plants into the sea, which harms marine flora.

Recycling water from wastewater treatment plants (for industrial, municipal, agricultural or aquifer recharge uses) for human consumption is a one-off solution, not viable on a large scale because of its very high environmental impact. Why? The treated water is returned to the river and, on the other hand, if it is recycled for human consumption, we cause a reduction in river flows and impoverish the ecosystem. For example, the river Besòs is fed 100% by treated water.

People, forest, butterflies, and mountains

The dryness of the air that people breathe, the lack of humidity in our forests, the mortality of trees, the reduction in the number of butterflies in urban parks, the warming of areas that guarantee biodiversity, the drastic change in mountain economies, the rise of the forest line, out-of-season blooms… the consequences of climate change towards patterns of aridity are multiple and affect us as a society and in our environment.

At CREAF we are providing exhaustive information on these consequences and here is a selection of the most recent:

Drought and water use: facts and myths

How to tackle the current water shortage, and the one on the horizon

12 consequences of global change in the mountains

10 climate science warnings at the start of COP28

The boreal region is heating up 3 times faster than the rest of the planet and its value as guarantor of biodiversity is in danger

Extreme drought causes shrublands and grasslands to capture 35% less CO2

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