Spain’s Water Problem

Alonso Campos

6 mins - 22 de Abril de 2024, 07:00

Spain has always suffered from limited rainfall, which has hampered agricultural production, especially in the Levante and south of the country, leading to the enormous growth of irrigated crops. This is due to both the higher risks of rainfed crops (which depend solely on rainfall) and the better economic performance of irrigated crops. 

However, this trend clashes with the problems caused by climate change, which will bring even lower rainfall and higher temperatures, exemplified by the severity of the current drought. With approximately 23% of the total cultivated area, irrigation accounts for 80% of national water consumption, and due to the current lack of rainfall, irrigation supply cuts are already being announced in Catalonia and Andalusia. It is therefore necessary to put forward short, medium, and long-term solutions and proposals to the lack of water in agriculture. 

Firstly, there is an urgent need to modernise the water management systems of Spanish irrigation. Replacing all flood or gravity irrigation (currently still 23% of the total) with more efficient methods such as localised irrigation is vital, especially in regions lagging behind in efficiency such as Catalonia. Crop digitisation and precision farming, which allow huge savings in water and fertiliser, must also be extended. In order to achieve this, the impact of the PERTE for the Digitalisation of the Water Cycle, which expects to mobilise €3.5 billion in public and private investments, is key. In addition, it is important to promote the participation in agricultural cooperatives of those farmers who do not already do so and the merger of existing agricultural cooperatives, in order to gain business volume and investment capacity in irrigation efficiency. 

However, improving the efficiency of irrigation will not be enough if the total irrigated area continues to increase (see Jevons’ Paradox), so limits must be set on irrigation growth based on available water with an update of the National Hydrological Plan. Farmers’ desire to irrigate in order to improve their economic position is legitimate and understandable, but they must understand that the current model is bread for today and hunger for tomorrow: with limited water resources, uncontrolled use of them can only lead to their depletion. 

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In the medium term, and in order to make up for the lack of rainwater, it is essential to increase the rate of installation of desalination plants. Our country is a world leader in desalination technology, which already provides a significant amount of water supply in many regions. The objective would be to supply the natural water supply in the coastal areas of the Levant, the driest and most densely irrigated areas. Moreover, thanks to the current boom in renewable energy and technological advances such as deep desalination, this water will become progressively cheaper to produce than ever before. 

It is also necessary in the medium term to offer attractive economic alternatives to irrigation. One very interesting option is agro-photovoltaics – the combination of agricultural crops with solar panels. Solar panels can bring additional economic resources to farmers, and there is ample evidence that the shade from solar panels helps many crops to grow and reduces their water demand. Specific legislation (as already exists in neighbouring countries) regulating farmers’ rights and benefits and the creation of economic incentives would be a great step forward for the large-scale deployment of agri-photovoltaics. This would have the additional benefit of resolving the current conflict in rural areas between renewable installations and the traditional agricultural economy.

In the medium-to-long term, the EU must abandon its rules on genetically modified crops, especially in light of recent developments in biotechnology such as CRISPR gene editing. While it is important to maintain the security of the food supply, gene editing techniques should not be banned a priori without considering their real impact on health, especially since the new genetic techniques are much less invasive and much more controlled than the old ones. This can lead to plants with less direct water consumption or less use of fertilisers and pesticides (reducing the impact on soil and aquifers). The European Commission’s announcement that it is considering removing some of the restrictions is very good news, but Spain should take the lead in pushing for reform to ensure that the door is not closed to scientific innovation, and that large chemical and biotech companies are prevented from abusing small farmers.

Finally, in the long term, Spain should promote regenerative agriculture as the best standard of sustainability and quality. Regenerative agriculture combines traditional methods with modern science to create farms that consume less water, fertilisers and pesticides while capturing atmospheric CO2 and producing more nutritious food. Regenerative agriculture encompasses multiple techniques and strategies and is more complex to implement than ordinary farming, requiring institutional support (with knowledge dissemination and help during the transition process) for farmers to implement it on a large scale. But if this is achieved, the long-term result will be a more resilient farming system, with less water and chemical consumption, less impact on the environment and healthier products.

From the institutional level, a partial awareness of the need for reforms and investments to improve the situation of agriculture and water supply. Apart from the aforementioned Water PERTE of the central government and the reform of the rules of gene editing at European level, the new Hydrological Plans approved at the beginning of the year contemplate investments in desalination or irrigation efficiency, and for the first time contemplate an ecological flow for the Tagus River. However, there is a lack of long-term proposals to solve the problem that the current model of constant growth of irrigation is unviable. Whether or not real solutions are studied will depend on the next government to reach Moncloa, although one of the two ideological blocs is still stuck in the logic of infinite, unplanned growth. The future of our water supply depends on these decisions. 
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