Spain in the Face of Water Stress: Water reclamation and reuse as a sustainable strategy

Samara López Ruiz

5 mins - 7 de Marzo de 2024, 11:00

Societies are engaged in a chess game against climate change, grappling with increasing pressure on vital resources. In this context, water, the vulnerable epicentre of the climate emergency, faces projections of a 20-30% increase in use and consumption by 2050. This is a novel scenario for countries accustomed to worrying about water abundance, such as the Netherlands. In contrast, Spain, an veteran member of the growing group of water-stressed states, has gained valuable experience in sustainable water management through innovative reuse and regeneration initiatives.

But what exactly does water reuse and regeneration entail? Both processes aim to optimise water management, especially in contexts threatened by lack of availability. Regeneration treats wastewater to make it potable, using advanced technologies that seek to remove pollutants and pathogens. On the other hand, reuse involves the use of reclaimed water in a variety of ways, giving a second life to water – from crop irrigation to environmental uses, even reaching our taps.

The Benefits of Water Reclamation and Reuse

It is crucial to highlight the economic and social benefits of water reuse, especially in the midst of uncertainty about long-term availability. Beyond increasing water availability, agriculture emerges as a major beneficiary. The use of reclaimed water reduces the need for fertilisers, improving agricultural production. Compared to alternatives such as water transfers or desalination, reuse incurs lesser costs and a lower environmental impact, thus contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. 

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Additionally, in some wastewater treatment systems, anaerobic digestion is used to break down organic waste, generating biogas as a by-product. This biogas can be captured and used as a valuable source of energy. It should not be overlooked that, compared to water transfers, reuse emerges as an option that entails lower levels of territorial and political conflict. Each of these aspects highlights the versatility and sustainability inherent in the practice of water reuse.

A Place on the Global, European, and Spanish Agendas
The global drive towards sustainable water management is not exclusive to Spain. It is reflected in initiatives such as the 2030 Agenda and the European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plans. However, these initiatives are relatively recent. Unlike them, Spain, in its long waltz with water scarcity, stands as a European pioneer in the regulation of reclaimed water. The specific regulations date back to 2007 and are contemplated in Royal Decree 1620/2007, addressing permitted uses ranging from agricultural to environmental fields, although they prohibit human consumption, except in cases of emergency.

Despite having an established regulatory framework that is well ahead of the European context, there is ample room for improving the maximum water reuse capacity in Spain. Leaving aside the fines imposed on Spain by the European Court of Justice for not complying with the Directive on water treatment, according to data from the INE, approximately 85% of reclaimed water has no subsequent productive use. Although Spain stands out as a European leader in water reuse, with estimates ranging from 7-13% of treated water, this suggests that water reuse is a promising option for extending availability, not only in Spain but in the EU in general, with significant implications for water security.

Furthermore, most of the water reused in Spain is used for agricultural purposes, especially in irrigation, which accounts for more than 80% of water reuse. This not only benefits crop production, but also improves water use efficiency, thus contributing to the circular economy. However, it would be interesting to expand and diversify its uses, for instance, studying its applicability to the industrial sector. 

On the other hand, it cannot be ignored that the idea of drinking water that in its previous life could have been in our shower or used to wash our hands generates rejection in many people. Many studies indicate that the rejection of recycled water for drinking purposes could pose a real risk to initiatives that seek to include reused water as a source of drinking water. However, the initial surprise at the idea of drinking recycled water is either dispelled or reinforced by the knowledge that cities such as Windhoek and Singapore have been successfully implementing this practice for decades. Overcoming ‘disgust resistance’ is essential to embrace solutions that not only mitigate pollution and benefit ecosystems, but also reconcile water sustainability with climate commitment. 

The Main Challenges for Spain
Despite Spain’s achievements, two challenges remain on the public agenda of water reclamation and reuse: economic viability and public acceptance. Financing projects, especially in agriculture, requires pricing strategies and public participation. Pricing of reclaimed water requires debate and regulatory measures to prevent capacity problems. On the other hand, public acceptance, reluctant among producers and consumers, requires awareness campaigns. The success of projects depends not only on technological advances, but also on social acceptance and collaboration – the fabric that strengthens these initiatives.

Consequently, Spain’s commitment to water reuse and regeneration positions it as a leader in sustainable management and a beacon in identifying crucial areas to advance in the battle against the growing threat of water scarcity. Notwithstanding, it is essential to be attentive to the development of future debates on the pricing of reused water and the possible implementation of awareness campaigns by public administrations. These actions are essential to reverse the persistent rejection and to encourage the acceptance of this source as an integral part of our water supply.
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