Thousands living in small communities that depend on wells which are now running dry are experiencing difficulties getting water fit for consumption.
Plastic jugs in hand, Joan Torrent takes a path into the woods in search of drinking water.
He fills them at a natural spring and then hauls them back to his home in Gualba, a picturesque village near Barcelona. Like many towns in Spain, it is bearing the worst of a record drought.
For Torrent, making this walk for water several times a week with the 8-litre jugs is a minor inconvenience, but one that may become more common as Spain and the rest of the Mediterranean adapt to climate change.
“Gualba used to be full of springs. Now I think this is the only one left,” Torrent, a 64-year-old retiree, said while making his way to the fountain connected to the spring.
“I don’t think we are aware of what is in store for all of us. … People don’t want to hear about there being a lack of water.”
Catalonia declares a drought emergency
Officials in Spain’s northeast region of Catalonia declared a drought emergency on Thursday. Reservoirs that serve 6 million people, including the population of Barcelona, are at less than 16 per cent of their capacity, a historic low.
The emergency, which takes effect on Friday, limits daily amounts of water allowed for residential and municipal purposes to 200 litres per person. Catalonia’s water agency says the average resident uses 116 litres a day at home.
“We are entering a new climate reality,” Catalan regional president Pere Aragonès said when announcing the emergency.
“It is more than likely we will see more droughts that will be both more intense and more frequent.”
Barcelona’s population has yet to feel the full impact of the drought beyond not being able to fill up private pools and wash cars. However, Gualba and other small towns and villages across Catalonia’s countryside have been in crisis mode for months. Thousands living in small communities that depend on wells now running dry are experiencing difficulties getting water fit for consumption.
Gualba’s name, according to local lore, means “white water” – for the streams flowing down from the Montseny Mountain overlooking the village. Its population of around 1,500 residents has been without drinking water since December when the local reservoir fell so low that water became only good for washing clothes and dishes.
Most residents have to drive to another town to buy bottled water.
“We have always had abundant water,” said Jordi Esmaindia, deputy mayor of Gualba. “Nobody imagined we would be like this.”
Why is Spain experiencing a record drought?
Spain has seen three years of below-average rainfall amid record-high temperatures. Conditions are only expected to get worse because of climate change, which is predicted to heat up the Mediterranean area faster than other regions.
The reservoirs fed by the Ter and Llobregat rivers in northern Catalonia have fallen to 15.8 per cent of their capacity, while their 10-year average is 70 per cent. Only the Guadalete-Barbate river basin in southern Andalusia, which faces similar shortages and restrictions, is worse off at 14.6 per cent.
Barcelona has avoided water shortages thanks to boosting its costly desalination and water purifying systems. They now account for 55 per cent of all water use in Catalonia. Even so, regional authorities in Barcelona and Sevilla, the seat of southern Andalusia, are both thinking of having drinking water shipped in.
Catalan authorities in Barcelona are threatening to fine municipalities if their residents, farmers and businesses don’t meet the water restrictions. They are also urging them to raise water bills so they can pay to modernise pipes.
“Some municipalities lose 70-80 per cent of their water through leaks,” Catalan government official Laura Vilagrà told Spanish national radio RNE. “That is not sustainable.”
Some towns are already turning off the taps
Experts in water management fear the countryside will continue to suffer the most. The restrictions have slashed water for pigs and other herd animals to 50 per cent and for crop irrigation by 80 per cent – a big blow to the rural economy.
“It is telling that this drought makes headlines simply because it affects Barcelona … when we have villages in the Pyrenees that have endured water shortages and have needed to get water brought in by truck for several months,” said Dante Maschio, spokesman for the Catalan nonprofit Aigua és vida, or Water Is Life organisation.
“If the drought is not managed correctly, it can lead to greater inequality and tension between cities and rural areas,” Maschio said.
Many towns are having water brought by tanker trucks often at huge expense. Catalonia’s government has shared €4 million euros – of a total of €191 million euros dedicated to fighting the drought – among 213 municipalities to help pay for transporting water.
Still, some towns have to cut off the taps, like Espluga de Francolí, which shuts off the water supply daily from 8 pm until 10 am to allow its wells to recover overnight.
Eva Martínez is the mayor of Vallirana, a town of 15,000 just over a half-hour west of Barcelona. For months now, her municipality has had periods when it has had to bring in water by trucks, which park in neighbourhoods for residents to fill up bottles and buckets.
“We understand that it is frustrating for citizens when we have problems with water and when we cannot provide water in the quantity and quality that is required,” Martínez said.
“We see that it does not rain. The situation is desperate.”