20 Feb, 2022 @ 12:00
5 mins read

Drying up: Water disputes springing up as major drought stares Spain in the face 

Spain’s ongoing drought is listed in the world’s top 10 ‘most expensive natural disasters’ of 2023
drought Mike Erskine Unsplash

THE crumbling walls of a once-submerged village rising from the cracked mud of a dried up reservoir have become a powerful symbol of the water emergency facing Spain.

And this isn’t dry, southern Spain.

Water levels have fallen so low in verdant and normally rainy Galicia, that the village of Aceredo, flooded in 1992 to create a reservoir, is no longer resting beneath a picturesque lake.

Aceredo Drought
The ghost town of Aceredo in Galicia emerged with drought. Photo: Nuno Gonçalves/Youtube

A crisis is brewing – one that has already seen fruit growers in conflict with expat neighbours over ‘water theft’ in some of the country’s normally most tranquil corners.

Olive Press readers have also reported how wildlife is suffering as lakes and reservoirs dry up and rivers recede.

The reason is simple. Rain isn’t falling ‘mainly on the plain’ – it’s barely falling at all.

With historical first quarter lows for precipitation, Spain’s reservoirs have drained to worrying levels.

drought Mike Erskine Unsplash
Dried out. Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

Unless a deluge occurs in the coming weeks, a dire situation is facing agriculture and consumers, who are likely to face water restrictions soon.

The situation is bad throughout Spain, with some of the worst affected areas being in Andalucia – as well as Murcia, Extremadura and Castilla la Mancha. 

According to the Junta’s Ministry of Agriculture, the volume of precipitation from September 2021 to February 5 was hovering around 60% below normal. 

The Olive Press recently reported that across Spain reservoirs are standing at just 44% of capacity

Malaga, meanwhile, has only received 14.5% of its usual rainfall for this hydrological year so far and reservoirs, such as La Vinuela sit at 15% capacity.

“At El Chorro, Ardales, water has gone from half the area. Forget the caravans and fishing, now it’s dry and the freshwater mussels are dead,” says Olive Press reader Claire Yvonne Newman.

Reservoir levels in Granada are at the lowest in a decade, falling to a third of capacity, while in the Guadalquivir basis levels sit at 29%.

The worst affected region is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Almeria at just 7%.

In Valencia, the situation is slightly better, but at Orihuela, in Alicante, reader Anne Nelson explains: “I live near the Pedrera reservoir and it’s worrying for the wildlife it supports. I’ve seen so many dead fish and even some turtle shells.”

In comparison, the Basque Country and Cantabria have 85% and 96% capacity in their reservoirs, the Ebro 66% and Leon 64%.

Embalses Comunidades 15 02 2022 1

So, what is making Spain so arid this year? According to experts, it’s not just the lack of rainfall causing the sorry situation – it’s too much demand. 

Among European countries, Spain is one of the heaviest water users. Some areas were on drought alert back in summer 2021, despite the last hydrological year (October 2020 to September 2021) having above average rainfall – unlike this hydrological year so far. 

Agriculture is a key culprit, with Spain boasting almost four million hectares of irrigated land, compared to 2.5m in Italy, 1.2m in Greece and 1.4m in France.

Almeria alone has 31,614 hectares of ‘sea of plastic’ greenhouses that dominate the landscape of Adra, Nijar, El Ejido and Vícar. 

Almeria greenhouses plastic Credit: Flickr/Roger Casas-Alatriste;
Almeria’s greenhouses grow fruit and vegetables destined for supermarkets across Europe. Credit: Flickr/Roger Casas-Alatriste;

These are heavy consumers, with 80% of their water coming from underground aquifers, leading to over-exploitation, and 20% from desalination plants (converted sea water).

There’s also a recent trend for avocados and mangos to be planted in Spain, with these subtropical fruits taking the place of less water-intensive orange crops.

Illegal strawberry fields – some with wells tapping underground aquifers – have also been accused of draining water from the Doñana wetlands which are a vital home to tens of thousands of migrating birds on their route between Africa and Europe.

On top of that, some areas have been depopulated over time, leading to ‘acequias’ not being well-maintained. 

Other areas have become more densely populated, increasing localised water usage. Hydro electricity plants have also contributed to the problem.

Rafael Seiz, head of the water programme at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), recently said: “Here, agriculture plays a fundamental role… they have always told us that, since it rains little in Spain, there is little water, but what about when it rains? Well, we don’t have water either.”

With water reserves already diminished, Spain has three more months of crop irrigation to go. Even if crops are OK this year, the problem will be kicked down the line, damaging fruit – and livelihoods – next year.

Spain’s fruit farms – particularly avocados – are receiving a lot of criticism. 

The Olive Press has received several reports of water theft by olive farmers and ‘regantes’ (water commissioners), which leaves residents with pipes running dry.

“Avocados are too thirsty for Spain,” insists Helen King, of Villalonga, in Valencia. “The farmers are ripping out citrus trees and planting avocado trees, which make more money but which need more water. 

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Avocado trees in the Alpujarras. Photo: F Govan/Olive Press

“Twice, our part of the village has fought to keep water flowing as the avocado growers are trying to force us to build a new irrigation canal to their fields and make us pay. 

“The avocado farmers are richer and pressurise the authorities. Town halls should be able to issue a planting permit because not all trees are suitable everywhere.”

It is a similar story in the Alpujarras area of Granada.

Water theft is such a problem there that Claire Marshall moved from Las Barreras, near Orgiva, to the Granada/Almeria border to escape it.

“Our neighbours tapped into our supply, using the municipal water as agricultural water. They installed a hidden tap on their property, before their own metre but on our supply, rendering our supply useless.

“It got worse when he decided to plant avocados and pulled up his olive trees. This meant our house didn’t have any water during the summer. I had to get a tanker and it was no good for my horses. The town hall did nothing, despite knowing there was a problem for three years.”

Another local expat, in Orgiva, who doesn’t want to be identified, said she has been threatened by the local ‘regantes’, who have diverted river water using large pipes that run 24/7 to irrigate their own avocado crops. 

She is now taking legal action as the local river is now running dry.

With water scarcity and irrigation already causing disputes, this problem is likely to worsen with a continuing drought and a potentially hot summer causing tempers to fray.

Jose-Miguel Viñas of Metored recently suggested that consumers could see water restrictions in their homes, as well as agriculture being affected. 

Without any rain over the next fortnight we will be weeks away from rationing.

Tentudia in Badajoz was one of the first municipalities to introduce water restrictions recently. These could soon apply to pools, parks, gardens, and golf courses across Spain.

However, whether your swimming pool will be empty this summer could depend on your forward-planning and your location.

One thing’s for sure: even if you try to limit your jacuzzis and jet washing, demand is constantly outstripping supply. 

“Ask for water first, before planting”, moots Iñaki Hormaza of the Institute of Subtropical and Mediterranean Horticulture.


Jo Chipchase

Jo Chipchase freelanced for internet and lifestyle publications in the UK, and for Living Spain magazine, and was co-founder of Press Dispensary. She lives in the Alpujarra mountains of Andalucia with her teenage sons, dogs and a horse. Contact [email protected]

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