'Very worrying': Northeast Spain looks for ways to deal with crippling drought

A tractor pulling a plow kicks up clouds of dust in a barren field.
A tractor plows the land in Belchite on May 9 in Mediana de Aragon, Zaragoza, Spain. (Fabian Simon/Europa Press via Getty Images)

BARCELONA — A massive drought in Catalonia is forcing this northeast region of Spain to turn to water rationing, seawater desalination and recycling effluent from sewage treatment plants.

“We’ve registered 30 months with a lack of rain,” Xavier Duran i Ramírez, spokesperson for the Catalan Water Agency, told Yahoo News.

Last year reservoirs dropped to 55% capacity in the region, but the Sau reservoir, normally the main source of water for the regional capital, Barcelona, is currently at 8%, requiring the removal of fish, to save them from dying from lack of oxygen. The water authority has put Catalonia at level 3 of its drought protocol, requiring the reduction of water for all uses, including slashing irrigation by 40%.

Many agricultural lands are parched, cracked and hard as cement, prompting the Federation of Agricultural Cooperatives of Catalonia to warn that regional harvests of olives, grapes, rice and fruit are at “serious risk” and that reductions could be "very drastic,” causing prices to skyrocket. Villagers are taking statues of Christ and the Virgin out of churches to carry them in processions in which residents pray for rain.

An expanse of hardened, cracked mud, leading up to a bank of grass by a reservoir.
View of the Riudecanyes reservoir, on May 4 in Tarragona, Catalonia. (Laia Solanellas/Europa Press via Getty Images)

“This is the worst period that we have had for the last 100 years,” Samuel Reyes, director of the Catalan Water Agency, said in April, normally a rainy month, which saw only a sprinkling of water this year.

Droughts are common in the Mediterranean basin, Annelies Broekman, a researcher at Catalan research institute CREAF, told Yahoo News. But they’re usually followed by years filled with heavy downpours — and that’s no longer happening. “It’s a climate change-related problem,” Broekman said, adding that chronic overuse of water reserves is exacerbating the situation.

The Catalan Water Agency has begun processing seawater in desalination plants, two of which were built after the severe drought of 2008, when water was so scarce it was hauled to Catalonia on ships from France. Although 33% of Barcelona’s water is now being provided via desalination, that’s still not enough to address the deficit.

Last year, Aigües de Barcelona also began using “regenerated” sewage water for street cleaning, industrial processes and irrigation, and the Catalan Water Agency is planning to boost the capacity at its desalination plants and build another.

But that won’t fix the problem, said Broekman. For one, with high energy costs, desalination plants, if relied on full-time, would “triple the price of water for consumers,” she said. And even though recycling wastewater is gaining popularity worldwide — in San Diego, Singapore and Israel, it’s even used as drinking water — she notes that water regeneration is also energy-intensive and threatens to further deplete water levels.

The dire situation, Broekman said, requires hard choices.

Jose Manuel Garcia leads his large flock of sheep down an arid slope with ruined buildings and a church in the background.
A shepherd, Jose Manuel Garcia, with his sheep in Belchite, a village destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, on May 9, near Almonacid de la Cuba, Zaragoza, in Aragon. (Fabian Simon/Europa Press via Getty Images)

“Do we want massive tourism here?” Broekman asked, pointing to Barcelona, which typically attracts some 9 million international visitors a year. “What kind of agriculture do we want — cash crops for export or to provide food for the local population?” The region, she said, simply doesn’t have enough water to continue at its current rate of growth.

More and more, local residents are questioning the use of regional resources to keep other countries supplied in goods such as Catalan bottled water and acorn-fed Iberian ham. Gilad, who asked that his last name not be used, grows organic vegetables about 15 miles north of Barcelona. “It’s a very worrying situation already,” he told Yahoo News. “This summer is going to be intense.”

He knows farmers who are simply not planting this year, due to water scarcity. His own 7-acre farm is holding up thus far, he said, because he’s spent thousands of dollars adding organic material to the soil to increase water retention.

Other growers are also turning to alternative practices to survive the drought. Mas Candí, a small vineyard in Penedes, now plants cover crops such as clover and avoids tilling the parched soil as much as possible. The vineyard’s owners also have been forced to try out drought-resistant varieties of grapes and even to graft their grapes onto sturdier stocks. Nevertheless, the water scarcity for the past two years has resulted in yields half those of normal years.

“We can carry on like this maybe two, three more years,” a vineyard co-manager, Ana Serra, told Yahoo News. “After that, I don’t know.”

An aerial view shows long strips of totally barren agricultural land
Agricultural land in the Camarles district of Tarragon, on April 26. (Angel Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A Barcelona hydrologist, Jesús Carrera Ramírez, a professor of research at the Spanish National Research Council, is most worried about the state of the hidden underground rivers in Catalonia and across Spain. “Part of the severity of this drought is due to the fact that across the whole country, our aquifers are drying up. And aquifers are what provide resilience to the hydrological cycle,” he said.

Carrera Ramírez, who works with the regional water authorities, has recommended that recycled wastewater be injected into aquifers, where it will be further purified naturally. Aigües de Barcelona has embarked on that idea. According to the utility, in 2021 it injected “the equivalent of 200 Olympic-sized swimming pools” into one nearby aquifer. However, with Barcelona’s municipal water supplies running low, aquifers are unlikely to be replenished much in coming months.

Carrera Ramírez wants to see aquifer refill prioritized to avoid levels falling so low that seawater seeps in.

He also believes a fundamental shift in thinking about climate change is needed. Droughts are no longer just cyclical events, he warns. “This is no longer unusual, this is here to stay, and it will not improve on its own," he said. "It will only get worse.”