What will Spain look like when it runs out of water? Barcelona is giving us a glimpse

Walking through Barcelona these days, you can’t miss the signs and billboards picturing a red plastic bucket and the message “Water doesn’t fall from the sky” (l’aigua no cau del cel in Catalan). The ads are part of a campaign to get people to save water. Since the beginning of February, Barcelona and 200 other towns in Catalonia have been in an official drought emergency. That means more than 6 million people in the region live with restrictions. Daily water usage per inhabitant is limited. Parks are unwatered, fountains are dry and showers at swimming pools and beaches are closed. Farmers can’t irrigate most of their crops and must halve their water usage for livestock or face fines.

It’s not just Catalonia. The European Drought Observatory’s map of current droughts in Europe shows the entire Spanish Mediterranean coast in bad shape, with red areas indicating an alert similar to those in north Africa and Sicily. Catalonia may be going through the worst drought on record for the area, but the southern region of Andalucía has faced continuous drought since 2016. Last year, Spain’s droughts ranked among the 10 most costly climate disasters in the world, according to a report by Christian Aid.

Europe is warming at twice the rate of other continents. For Spain, this is not an abstract threat: climate disruption has already changed people’s lives. Soaring temperatures force people to limit time spent outdoors to avoid heatstroke, an already fatal threat for workers in city streets and farms. Hotels are filling swimming pools with seawater and wondering what the next season will bring. Farmers are throwing out entire fruit crops so they can use precious water to at least save their trees. Olive oil production is crippled by severe heatwaves. Almond growers fear early flowering caused by the warmest January on record as it could ruin production again.

Uncertainty about crop production, prices and water supplies explains part of the unease of those farmers blocking roads and protesting in the streets of Spanish cities, after the recent example of their counterparts in France, Belgium and Germany. Beyond the current water shortages, they complain about a range of burdens, from onerous paperwork to unfair competition from countries outside the EU with lower environmental and health standards to tough requirements for funding. Paradoxically, protests are also about measures intended to reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment, and break a vicious cycle that ultimately worsens conditions for farmers too.

It’s easy to see how these tensions could be exploited by populist parties, particularly on the far right. Mainstream politicians are accused of focusing too often on partisan politicking and power struggles related to their own survival.

As Catalonia was declaring the drought emergency, it was striking, for example, to watch how the Spanish government and most politicians were embroiled in protracted parliamentary discussions on an amnesty law for those who organised an unofficial independence referendum in Catalonia in 2017. It’s easy to understand why ordinary citizens could feel there are more pressing issues.

The dry riverbed of the Ter in northern Catalonia, Spain, 6 February 2024. Photograph: Jordi Boixareu/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

It’s not accurate to caricature all farmers as victims or far-right stooges and to suggest they have no agency. Their unease is real – and it presents an opportunity that unscrupulous leaders can exploit.

Issues such as the climate crisis and tensions between big cities and depopulating Spanish regions are becoming more politicised. Sandra León, a professor of political science and director of the Carlos III-Juan March Institute, tells me that monitoring public attitudes over time, her research team has noticed a growing backlash against climate policies, particularly among men. At the same time, León says, the climate crisis and urban-rural tensions are issues that are not yet “completely crystallised” in Spain. If people have not yet formed very firm opinions on them, that surely leaves room for both partisan exploitation and fostering understanding.

The far-right party Vox and other populists could certainly capture these debates, León argues, but there are also grounds for hope that “spaces for understanding” can emerge as these issues are still not as polarised as others. This will require a lot of effort, though, first from mainstream politicians, including those in the opposition who are tempted to play the climate denialism card.

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Adaptation to the climate crisis is already happening in Spain, as there is no other choice. But much of it is improvised and tends to take place only when the worst has already happened.

Political leaders need to make sure that those most vulnerable to climate uncertainty, and who may have grievances about measures supposedly passed to help them, are prioritised. In many parts of Spain, water may not fall from the sky. But we can be sure that solutions won’t fall from the sky either, no matter how many demagogic politicians say so.

Title: What will Spain look like when it runs out of water? Barcelona is giving us a glimpse
URL: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2024/feb/15/spain-water-barcelona-farmers-tourism-catalonia-drought
Source: the Guardian
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Date: February 15, 2024 at 08:02PM
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