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Spain is battling a historic drought. Its government says that is a warning for the world

Spain’s Teresa Ribera (Photos by Getty)
Spain’s Teresa Ribera (Photos by Getty)

With Spain’s government having agreed to ship water to Catalonia to help battle a historic drought, the Spanish environment minister says countries need to realise it is a resource that can no longer be taken for granted.

In an interview before attending the World Sustainable Development Summit in Delhi, India, Teresa Ribera tells The Independent that political point-scoring, such as that seen between Catalonia and neighbouring regions over sharing resources, will not bring the long-term solutions needed.

“It is not politically responsible to be populist with water. The water wars ... are dangerous. Water is a basic resource for a family,” she says.

Spain’s severe drought has prompted authorities in Catalonia to bring in emergency measures to preserve the dwindling reserves, which have fallen to 15.8 per cent of normal levels. Emergency measures in Catalonia include a ban on topping up swimming pools, washing cars and watering private gardens. Beach showers have been turned off. Each person has been limited to 200l per day, about the amount of water in a ten-minute shower.

The neighbouring region of Aragon has so far refused demands from Catalonia to share water from the Ebro river. But Aragon might yet share resources with the regions of Andalusia and Murcia which (in contrast to Catalonia) are also run by right-wing parties. Catalonia has expressed annoyance at this.

To deal with the drought crisis across Spain, Ribera, who is the minister for ecological transition, says Spain has drawn up a water management strategy to deal with decreasing reserves of water by introducing more desalination plants and making greater use of recycled water.

A pier and boats on the dry banks of the depleted Sau reservoir in Girona, Catalonia (AFP via Getty Images)
A pier and boats on the dry banks of the depleted Sau reservoir in Girona, Catalonia (AFP via Getty Images)

“I think water in Mediterranean climates has always been considered of great value but ... it now has greater importance. There is a difference between the 1980s and 1990s when there was water on demand. But now the attitude is more realistic. We are not promising something that there is not,” Ribera says.

“This [strategy] allows us to see the amount of water which is available is decreasing and it is constant. And what is our capacity for resources? This comes from modernisation of management of water, increased use of desalination plants and, most novel, seeing water as an ‘ethical resource’,” she adds.

Unless there is abundant rain in the next few months, Ribera says ships will be used from June to move water from a desalination plant in Valencia to Barcelona to relieve the situation in Catalonia.

“This is one of the first plans which we are working on. We want to use the desalination plant. It is underused. It is working at 15 per cent of its capacity,” she says.

“It will supply 10 per cent of the needs of the Barcelona metropolitan area. [There will also] be two boats per day with 20,000 cubic metres [of water]. Our plan is that it will be ready in June, coinciding with what could be the worst moment of the drought.”

People sunbathe on San Sebastian beach in Barcelona in January (AFP via Getty Images)
People sunbathe on San Sebastian beach in Barcelona in January (AFP via Getty Images)

With restrictions on water supplies, some critics have targeted use in the tourism industry. A report from 2022 from the Barcelona Hotels Guild, an industry body, said use per person in five star establishments averaged 242l per day. However, Ribera says blaming tourists simply created division, rather than solutions. “Many tourists do not come from cultures where you must be careful with the management of water,” she says.

Spain suffered a series of heatwaves last year, with temperatures nearly 50C in some areas. Ribera says tourists may now opt to come on holiday to Spain out of season to escape the searing heat, which may also help with peak water demands. “There is an argument which is gaining weight in tourism organisations in recent years. The idea of going on holiday outside of the normal seasons is gaining ground,” she says.

“Everyone understands that when you are relaxing on holiday, and it is hot and you go to the beach but there is a limit to that heat. 40C by the sea is not any fun for anybody. There will be a change to tourist demand.”

Some independent hydrology experts have blamed overuse of water by agriculture for Spain’s lack of supplies, but Ribera says that isn’t right either. “It is not simply a problem of agriculture. It is a problem which goes much further than that. We all must be careful with the management of water.”

Spain’s mar de plastico – or sea of plastic – where millions of tomatoes or strawberries are grown in greenhouses has met with criticism for its intensive use of water in one of the driest parts of Europe. However, Ribera insisted that Spanish farmers have become more conscious about water use in recent years.

Ribera speaking at December’s Cop28 in Dubai (AFP via Getty Images)
Ribera speaking at December’s Cop28 in Dubai (AFP via Getty Images)

“I think agriculture in Spain has introduced much more efficiency and sophistication in the use of water. It is not a Saharan climate [in Spain] but there are regular episodes of high temperatures. Spain is a country which is used to droughts,” she says.

“What is true is that there are crops like almonds and olives [affected] when it is raining with less frequency, and they are exposed to long-term droughts. It is not just a problem of watering as with tomatoes. The farmers are conscious and are making greater effort and efficiency with water. But we have a real problem with climate change.”

Ribera will attend this week’s summit in Delhi alongside 56 heads of state, 13 Nobel prize winners and nearly 2,000 business leaders. The event, running from 7 to 9 February, aims to make sustainable development a shared global goal.

Ribera is one of three deputy prime ministers in Spain’s left-wing coalition government and was a prominent presence for her country at the Cop28 climate talks in Dubai in December. She says that nations such as India will play a key role in finding sustainable solutions to the world’s energy problems.

Ribera says that droughts will happen more often and the world had to work together to deal with this reality.

“We have to be prepared for the future. One of the conclusions is that these phenomenons are going to happen every 30 years and are going to be part of the reality of the normality of the climate in our country,” she says. “It is no good saying ‘I don’t want to or I don’t have time or I don’t have resources’.”