Water Levels Across All of Spain’s River Basins Will See a 20% Decrease in the Coming Decades

Spain’s sweltering summer came with three abnormally extreme heat waves that occurred sooner, lasted longer, and was categorized with higher intensities compared to previous years. The unambiguous consequences of anthropogenic climate change are becoming ever more apparent.

Though decarbonizing the economy should remain at the forefront of national climate policy, the reality of the Anthropocene and its consequential socioeconomic and environmental ramifications must be recognized and met with stringent adaption and mitigation measures to ameliorate ecological and humanitarian catastrophe.

Spain’s geographic location at the southern extremity of Europe will trigger climatic conditions in the following decades, increasingly resemblant to those seen in Northern Africa and the Middle East. Models have projected the Mediterranean region to see a 25% increase in warming relative to the global average, whereas, during summer, this discrepancy is postulated to reach 40%. Leading to 2050, Spanish summers are expected to be elongated by up to an entire month, with warm tropical nights also expected nationwide. In the last 40 years, droughts in Europe have already doubled in both spread and frequency, costing economies an estimated 140USD billion, a cost likely to inflate by 65% with inaction.

Water scarcity

In the last 70 years, Spain has seen rapid industrialization, expansion of irrigated land, and a booming tourism sector, inducing exponentially rising water demand. The natural dry climate of the Iberian Peninsula already faces difficulties replenishing its exceedingly depleted groundwater reserves, with many aquifers suffering a net loss in the last 40 years. Amidst projections of even drier conditions, Spain will subsequently be subject to severe climate-change-induced economic, social, and environmental vulnerability.

Water levels across all river basins on the Peninsula will see a 20% decrease in the following decades, with a further distressing situation in the Segura Basin, which encompasses the horticulture regions of Almeria, Murcia, and Alicante.  Water demand in the Guadiana and Jucar basins, the Balearic Islands, and the Canary Islands are already close to exceeding their naturally available resources.

To ensure meeting robust water security, a non-conventional source of desalination has become a key component of Spain’s water supply mix, with around 900 plants in operation by 2017. During the severe European drought period between 2015 and 2017, desalination plants in Almeria, Murcia, and Alicante, successfully mediated the drought without any restrictions on water supply, meeting 70% of demand.

Despite empirically guaranteeing a high level of resilience, desalination remains cost and energy-intensive, as seen during the 2015 drought, where the reliance on desalination plants resulted in a 30% hike in the price of water. To achieve an equitable means of water security, the commissioning of desalination must be coupled with measures to maintain the affordability of water, possible by greater use of renewable energy sources. There also remains substantial room for technical efficiency gains, clearly displayed by the Campo De Delias desalination plant which reduced energy consumption by almost 50%.

Spain’s gradual adoption of the European Water Framework Directive (WFD) has committed the national government to promote water management that appreciates the socioenvironmental fragilities associated with water scarcity.

Energy obsolescence of Spain’s built environment  

The state of building infrastructure in Spain also offers an unsettling account of the potential weight of health-related concerns onset by predicted temperature increases. Most buildings in Spain were constructed from the 1950s to the 1970s with little adherence to energy efficiency guidelines, leaving 80% of buildings nationwide categorized as energy obsolete, a state of poor thermal and energy performance. This stark situation has left almost 40% of housing in Spain prone to overheating, which under unabated climate change would place the entire national housing stock at severe risk by 2050.

Existing energy obsolescence will prove further climate policy complications, hampering Spain’s ambitious renewable energy targets. Additionally, overheating in housing will lead to a higher demand for cooling, thus intensifying energy requirements. Higher demand, for cooling, will also exacerbate energy poverty amongst poorer households, especially in southern Spain, the hottest region.

The long periods of exposure to overheating will also pose significant health risks, mainly amongst the elderly and children, which may further strain national health and fiscal resources. There is no current mention of health risks in national climate change policy, underappreciating the adverse impacts of poor health and the opportunities for its mitigation.

To cope, the Spanish government should consider implementing a comprehensive retrofitting program across households most vulnerable to energy poverty or those experiencing monetary poverty to prevent a disastrous humanitarian crisis in the decades to come.

This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Spain Country Manager Sean Lewis


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