Hot Topic: Spain’s Long-Term Drought

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Last year, drought conditions in Europe really hit the headlines, with a series of intense heatwaves leading the continent to experience its hottest summer on record which, in turn, resulted in withered crops and premature deaths.


Research published last month (April) from the Copernicus Climate Change Service, reported on by the Guardian, found that the climate crisis resulted in frightening impacts across Europe in 2022, impacts that would have been almost impossible without global warming.


In southern Europe, for example, local communities endured 70-100 days of heat stress, with temperatures feeling like at least 32 degrees C. This excessive heat, coupled with periods of low rainfall, led to drought conditions that affected over a third of the continent at its peak, with 2022 the driest year on record.


Almost two-thirds of rivers across Europe experienced lower than average water flows, while carbon emissions from summer wildfires were the highest seen in 15 years because of extreme temperatures. As for the European Alps, record amounts of ice were lost from glaciers.


According to the study, Europe as a whole experienced its second-warmest year on record ever, with temperatures climbing at twice the global average rate… which is faster than any other continent. Over the last five years, the average temperature in Europe has been 2.2 degrees C higher than in pre-industrial years.


Commenting on the findings, Mauro Facchini – head of earth observation at the European Commission – said: “[They] are frightening, I have to say, but I think we have to know the truth. We have more and more extreme events happening in Europe. Every one of us can witness that.”


And lead author of the report Dr Rebecca Emerton made further comments, saying: “We cannot stop these climate impacts. We can only limit them by reducing greenhouse gas emissions rapidly. Unfortunately, the impacts are probably already in place for the growing season, so we’re likely to see reduced crop production this year.”


Drought is now on the cards for many farmers in Europe this year off the back of a dry winter and a dry spring, which is expected to drive reductions in crop production over the next 12 months.


There are many factors that can lead to drought and exacerbate what is already a particularly complicated issue, with overuse and water mismanagement certainly not helping the situation. But it is rising global temperatures that will put even more pressure on water resources and supply in Europe, which will naturally have a big impact on crop output.


Drought in Spain


Spain is now in long-term drought, experiencing its driest climate for at least 1,200 years, which has severe implications for food production.


Research published last year in the Nature Geoscience Nature found that rainfall in Spain has been falling by 5-10mm annually since 1950, with a further 10-20 per cent drop in winter expected to be seen by the end of the century.


Severe water shortages associated with drought will no doubt lead to food shortages now and well into the future, with further research projecting a 30 per cent drop in olive production in southern Spain by 2100, as well as a drop in grape-growing regions in the Iberian peninsula of between 25 to 99 per cent by 2050 because of severe water scarcity.


The dry conditions that wreaked havoc in Spain last year certainly show no signs of slowing down in 2023, with EuroNews reporting just a few weeks ago that the country experienced its warmest April on record this year.


And the situation seems to be driving farmers to take drastic action in order to grow crops, turning to illegal wells to access the water supplies they need for irrigation.


According to the news source, some 26 people in southern Spain have now been arrested for tapping into illegal wells so they can grow tropical fruit. Spain is, in fact, the biggest producer of tropical fruit in Europe – and it requires a huge amount of water in order to grow such crops.


Following a four-year investigation, local authorities have found over 250 illegal wells, ponds and boreholes in the Axarquia region of Andalusia, which has been affected by drought since 2021.


Those arrested are now being investigated for misuse of public waters and alleged fraudulent use of water for irrigation. But is it perhaps all that surprising that farmers are being pushed to the brink in this way, given estimates that avocado production will fall by 25 per cent this year because of high temperatures and dwindling water supplies?


The Spanish government has now allocated over €2 billion to address the country’s drought situation and outdoor work has now been banned during extreme heat.


However, it seems as though local communities want to see more being done, with farmers in Catalonia staging a go-slow protest in their tractors in various cities earlier in May to demand that the government provides more support to deal with the impact of drought.


Farming union Unio de Pagesos is also pushing local authorities to provide tax and labour incentives, as well as subsidies and emergency network improvements, to ensure that farmers are guaranteed a minimum supply of water.


And the Coordinator of Farmers’ and Ranchers’ Organizations – the main Spanish farmers’ association – said last month (April) that because drought now affects 60 per cent of the nation’s countryside, crops such as barley and wheat are likely now to fail entirely across four regions in Spain.


A new report has said that the long-term drought conditions are leading to irreversible losses in more than 3.5 million hectares of crops, with some cereals now needing to be written off in the prime growing regions of Murcia, Extremadura, Castilla La Mancha and Andalusia.


Other crops that are currently struggling at the moment as well include nuts and vineyards, as well as olives, corn, rice, cotton and sunflowers.


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