Drought in Spain – ruins “spring” from dried up dams, poor harvests threaten Europe’s food

The ruins of towns submerged decades ago have resurfaced in Spain in recent weeks. The reason is the drought that is plaguing the country and which has led to the reduction of water in the dams to a dangerous minimum.

Artificial water bodies are filled to an average of 35% of their capacity, the lowest since 1995.

The southern autonomous region of Andalusia is the most affected, where dams are filled to an average of 25.7 percent of critical capacity. Malaga province’s main dam is only 11% full – something that hasn’t happened since it was built in the 1980s, according to Spanish English-language Olive Press.

This is unlikely to change – meteorologists predict that the remaining months of the year in Malaga will have little rainfall and be warmer than usual. What’s more, 33% less rain than average is expected for Malaga and provinces such as Córdoba, Seville, Cádiz and Huelva.

Dozens of sites once submerged in the dams – churches, cemeteries, bridges, roads, ruins from bygone times – now rise above the water, and in some places can be reached on foot and one can walk among them.

Photo: Getty Images

For example, a church from the 11th century, located in the Catalan town of San Roma de Sau, which was submerged in 1965, has reappeared, although usually only its bell tower was above the water.

With the drought comes the fires. In 2022, Spain had the most fires in the last 14 years and the most damage caused by them. 417 were the fires, and the burned territory is 2.97 million acres, according to the data of the European Forest Fire System.

An anchor has shown itself after the drought caused the water in a dam to recede.
Photo: Getty Images

An anchor has shown itself after the drought caused the water in a dam to recede.

The threat is not only to the Iberian Peninsula. The drought in Spain could also have global consequences, since we are talking about the country that is traditionally the largest producer of fruit and vegetables in the European Union.

Olive production is particularly at risk, and the country provides about half of the world’s olive oil. This year’s harvest is a third less and no rain is in the offing to remedy the situation.

“They should have been full of olives now, close to harvest. But they’re not,” farmer Francisco Elvira told the BBC as he showed off his olive trees. “And this is the crop that should produce the oil for the supermarkets next year,” he explains.

Photo: Getty Images

Farmers are turning to sunflowers to cover oil shortages from war-torn Ukraine, the biggest oil producer. But sunflowers also need rain, and the lack of it will not lead to a strong crop.

Sometimes the need for water for irrigation purposes also leads to the deterioration of the ecological situation.

An example of this is the largest permanent lake in Spain – Sana Olala, located in the Doñana National Park, which turned into a mud puddle this summer. Years of drought and overuse have taken their toll on the body of water, which traditionally does not dry up during the hottest months.

The lake has dried up for the first time in 50 years, experts from the Spanish National Research Council reported on September 5 this year.

Among the reasons are climate changes and mining pollution, but also drying due to agriculture around Donyana.

Calls from activists were ignored and earlier this year another 14,000 acres of land near the national park was brought under regulation, leading to new illegal wells with which farmers are trying to irrigate their new lands.

Back in 2007, the World Wide Fund for Nature warned that strawberry farms near the park could cause catastrophic damage. However, 95% of Spanish strawberries are produced in this region. The harm from them comes from the pesticides used, but also from the illegal wells.

The ruins "surface" from a dried up dam near Isnajar, Spain.
Photo: Getty Images

Ruins “float” from a dried-up dam near Isnajar, Spain.

In this complicated situation, the Spanish authorities turn their eyes to the ocean.

Currently, ocean water desalination plants are being expanded and new ones are being built, although this cannot be seen as a complete solution to the complex drought problem.

At these offshore stations, water is pumped from the ocean, half of which is desalinated, and the salt removed is pumped into the other half, which is then returned to the ocean without harm to the environment.

One such plant in the city of Almería currently produces 90,000 cubic meters of purified water per day, but has been ordered to increase production to 130,000 cubic meters per day within four years.

And as the drying up of the Iberian Peninsula continues, there is a risk that consumers in even more remote parts of Europe will gradually begin to feel its impact on their own pockets.


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