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''The church's reappearance on the reservoir due to Spain's drought is heartbreaking for me."
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”The church’s reappearance on the reservoir due to Spain’s drought is heartbreaking for me.”

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Magdalena Coromina used her walking stick to hit the solid surface beneath her feet and gazed at a submerged church. 60 years prior, the engineers constructing the reservoir she was standing in had intentionally flooded the town of Sant Romà de Sau, causing its structures to be submerged. The consistent rainfall in the area had kept the remains hidden.

The previous world has disappeared. Due to a drought, the reservoir is now only at 1% capacity, revealing the remnants of the village. The structures made of stone are now deteriorating on dry ground, surrounded by withered plants. The church, which would normally be visible during periods of low water, now stands tall above the water level.

Coromina, an 85-year-old from Ripoll, expressed her sorrow as she visited the ruins on an unseasonably warm February day. She contrasted the current lack of winter weather with her memories of rain and snow from her childhood.

The dried up reservoir of Sant Romà de Sau, Spain

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The region of Catalonia, located in the northeastern part of Spain, is facing a severe water shortage. This has resulted in the loss of crops, negatively impacting the economy, and imposing restrictions on 6 million residents who are under emergency protocols. While experts are unsure of how much the climate crisis has contributed to the decrease in water availability, they do warn that this struggle to maintain water access will also affect other parts of southern Europe as a result of increased fossil fuel pollution and rising temperatures.

According to climate scientist Stefano Materia from Barcelona Supercomputer Centre, the western Mediterranean coasts will experience higher evaporation rates, shorter periods of rainfall, and reduced snow coverage in mountainous areas. This phenomenon will be especially problematic in cities such as Valencia, Marseille, and Genoa, where the combination of industrial and tourist activities is already straining limited water supplies and making them more susceptible to these changes.

Catalonia offers a glimpse of that future. At the start of February, after more than 1,000 days of drought, the regional government extended restrictions to cover Barcelona and other municipalities. Together with Spain’s ecology ministry, it announced plans to invest nearly half a billion euros in desalination plants to make salty water fit for the tap. Officials also want to ship drinking water from wetter parts of the country and double the aid money for emergency works on the leaky network of pipes.

However, while they patiently anticipate rainfall and advancements in infrastructure, the people of Catalonia are at odds on how to distribute the limited water. This predicament has caused tension among residents, agricultural workers, and tourists as they battle over a diminishing natural resource.

“It can be challenging to prevent these responses, as individuals typically feel the need to react when they experience suffering,” stated Meritxell Serret, the foreign minister of Catalonia and former agriculture minister. “There is a great deal of work to be done in all sectors and we understand that it is unrealistic to expect immediate results.”

Meritxell Serret, Catalan’s foreign minister.

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Farmers, who use one-third of the water in the internal basin where most Catalans live, face the greatest pressure to cut their consumption. The government has ordered them to use 80% less water for irrigation and 50% less water for livestock, while asking industry to cut water use by 25%.

The president of a local irrigation community, Albert Grassot, stated that the limitations and consequences of the drought have made farmers feel powerless. He described it as a combination of impotence, vulnerability, and anger.

While passing through his rice farm near the historic town of Pals, Grassot expressed that the lack of rain is a greater concern for him than the coronavirus pandemic or the energy crisis. He stated that if there isn’t any rainfall in the next three months, his family will be unable to plant seeds for the first time since his great-great-grandfather began cultivating the land.

According to him, the consequences will extend beyond his personal farm. Rice fields require a considerable amount of water as it is grown in flooded areas. However, in Pals, located only 3km away from the coastline, this traditional method plays a vital role in preventing saltwater from seeping inland and causing damage to other crops and environments.

Rice farmer Albert GrassotView image in fullscreen

In Barcelona, where public fountains are dry and beachside showers have been shut off, the burden of drought is lighter than in the villages but still hangs heavy over the city. Posters in subway stations warn in stern letters that “water doesn’t fall from the sky”.

Barcelona experienced a drought in 2008, prompting the city to prioritize recycling wastewater, desalinating seawater, and encouraging residents to conserve drinking water. These measures have not only improved water availability but also decreased the city’s water consumption to some of the lowest in Europe.

Geographer Andrew Ross from Portland State University, who co-authored a book on water politics in global cities, stated that although Barcelona has been a frontrunner in various areas, its goals still do not fully meet the necessary requirements. “The fact that even Barcelona is facing this crisis despite its efforts highlights the urgency for the world to take action,” he explained.

Posters in a subway station in Barcelona declaring a drought emergency

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The activists express dissatisfaction with the government’s failure to take action against vacationers who visit during the summer months and consume double the amount of water compared to locals. In 2022, Barcelona received 10 million tourists, making it a highly popular destination in Europe, with tourism contributing to 12% of the Catalan economy.

However, hotels are beginning to face the consequences. In Lloret de Mar, a popular coastal destination known for its lively parties, some hotel owners have requested permission from the Catalan government to purchase a portable desalination system. This is in order to bypass regulations on pool water usage. Without being able to properly fill their pools before the summer season, they worry that the number of tourists may significantly decrease.

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Until now, the tourism sector has not been under much pressure to make structural modifications in order to preserve water. In most hotels, showers consume the largest amount of water, and according to Gianluigi Buttiglieri, a scientist at the Catalan Institute of Water Research, “greywater” that is disposed of through drains can be easily treated if it is kept separate from sewage. However, without legislation requiring this practice, there is no motivation for them to do it.

The Samba hotel, located in Lloret’s central area, is a three-star establishment that stands out for its unique use of separate plumbing systems. Twenty-five years ago, the hotel underwent renovations which involved dividing its pipes to allow for the treatment of greywater in a basement tank before rerouting it to the bathrooms used by guests.

The hotel is currently conducting experiments on a unique filtration system utilizing layers of soil rich in plants before undergoing disinfection. As stated in a previous study co-authored by Buttiglieri at the Samba, this system would be cost-effective within ten years.

According to Laura Pérez, the hotel manager in charge of sustainability, the Samba has also been affected by regulations on swimming pools. According to Spanish law, these pools cannot be filled with treated greywater. However, the hotel has proved to be more resistant to drought compared to other hotels. Pérez stated, “We are not being impacted as severely since we require less water.”

The Hotel Samba in LloretView image in fullscreen

In Manresa, a small industrial city located farther inland, there is an example of a similar idea taking place on the outskirts. Pol Huguet, an environmental council member, has initiated a rewilding effort on six hectares of land near an abandoned disco. The goal is to create a more diverse and resilient area, able to withstand extreme weather. However, due to a drought, the project has been delayed by at least a year. The young trees have not yet reached a height where they can withstand grazing by sheep.

Huguet remarked that the forest behind him has been affected by human activity, resulting in a landscape that is highly susceptible to hot and dry conditions. He emphasized that the uniformity and density of the trees in the area can contribute to the rapid spread of wildfires.

The Catalan government has expressed the same concerns as officials regarding the forests that have become highly combustible. As a precaution, they have announced that they will strengthen their fire prevention teams in February, four months ahead of schedule. The prolonged drought in many parts of Catalonia has significantly increased the danger of wildfires due to the unusually high amount of dead and decaying plant material.

Although the consequences of the dry spell are largely unparalleled, residents assert that it is a familiar concept among Catalans.

Residents in Manresa gathered on Saturday to mark the building of an ancient canal, known as La Séquia, which linked the town to the Llobregat River over 600 years ago. Constructed in response to severe droughts, the canal provided vital water for Manresa’s agricultural activities and later powered the textile mills that were once a thriving part of the town’s economy.

However, a nearby bishop who possessed mills upstream opposed attempts to construct the canal and excommunicated the entire community during the 14th century. His concerns stemmed from the potential decrease in his profits if water was diverted. According to legend, he reversed his stance after perceiving a flash of light as a sign from God that the canal should be built.

Huguet reflected on the repetitive occurrence of water conflicts throughout history, in various locations. He gazed at the barren vegetation ahead and lamented, “It’s happening once more.”

Source: theguardian.com