February 7th 2024

Climate adaptation and water resources Management - a here and now requirement

The European Commission published its proposals for greenhouse gas emission reductions by 2040 in the past days. The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the EU by 90% relative to 1990. The eyewatering reduction is needed, say the Commission, if the EU is to meet its 2050 net-zero emissions target. There is no doubt that the EU and indeed the collective global community needs to further decrease GHG emissions as evidenced from the COP 28 conclusions. Over the coming months and indeed into the first year of the next Commission mandate in 2025, the details of the sectoral emission reductions needed will be the subject of heated and testy negotiations. However, the reality of climate change is already with us, and I personally find it disturbing that the EU and its Member States are not giving climate adaptation the same sense of urgency. Let’s illustrate this reality with a current crisis barely registering in the media.

An Andalusian tale

Andalucia, where my wife and I have made our home since leaving norther Europe in 2020, has some of the hottest and driest climates as well as some of the wettest ones in Spain. Yearly average rainfall in Almeria in the eastern part of Andalucia is around 150 millimeters. While in inland Cádiz in the western part of the region, yearly average rainfall is above 2,000 millimeters.  It is the 2nd largest region in Spain geographically and is home to some 8.6 million people. A large part of the regional population is increasingly made up of northern Europeans, retirees and “digital nomads” attracted by the climate, lower cost of living and space.

The Costa del Sol is of course the best known and most visited part of the region with millions of visitors from Norther Europe, Spain and afar coming to enjoy the warm sunny weather, sites and attractions. In Andalucia, tourism accounts for 10% of its workforce and in 2023, some 20 million tourists to the region generated revenues of 8 billion euros.

However, the realities of a changing climate are beginning to impact the region and unless more effective climate adaptation policies, including better spatial planning and associated water infrastructure, these impacts will become more severe. AMET, the Spanish meteorological service recently declared  the region to be officially in the grip of its longest drought since 1961. The drought has been developing since 2016 with progressively less and less annual rainfall but only recently, it appears, have citizens and the political classes actually woken up to it. The immediate impact of the drought is reflected in extreme water shortages reflected in near empty reservoirs, water supply cuts and other emergency measures to try to save water until it rains.

An unfolding crisis

The Regional government and the various provincial and local authorities are struggling to address the issue which now directly threatens the important tourism sector and a large part of fruit and vegetable production sector. Recently in the local English language weekly SUR, Acosol, the Costa del Sol's water management entity, stated that the area may be facing a 'real risk of water shortage' by summer 2024. In addition, they are warning that some of the short term measures proposed by the regional government to address the drought, by increasing the volume of water flows in the water system, risks dangerous pipe bursts as many of the mains pipes are old, dating back to 1972. This adds further to the risk of supply disruption to populations and businesses.

With these economic interests at stake, its little wonder that regional politicians are nervous and looking for fixes. These range from increasing the flow of water from existing desalination plants, installation of portable desalination plants, to increased extraction from already exhausted reservoirs and even bringing in water boats. Additionally, communities up and down the Costa del Sol are now on reduced water pressure and may be facing partial cuts in supply. Non-essential uses of water for gardens, pools etc. are banned in a number of conurbations.

Short term fixes

The Regional and provincial authorities are trying to speed up critical water supply upgrades and even reactivate old wells and boreholes. The regional government has come up with a supplementary, short-term, “Drought Plus” plan full of short-term actions (to manage the drought and increase water supply) which it now needs to find the financial resources to support it. At the beginning of February, Juan Moreno, the President of Andalucia, actually met with Maros Sefcovic, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission, to request the activation of the EU Solidarity Fund to address the “drought disaster” in the region. Of course, to do this, Sefcovic actually needs the government in Madrid to make a request. Relations between the Junta de Andalucia and the Madrid government are fraught, so getting Madrid to support the call for the use of the Solidarity Fund may prove difficult.

Failure to plan and resource regional climate adaptation

Ironically, despite the drought crisis, the fact is it did not develop overnight. It has been in progress since 2016. Despite this, the Andalucian government continues to support ever more tourism and related development including attracting high tech and financial services sectors to the region.  This adds further to existing demands on an already stretched water supply and water management system. It reflects a wider issue in Andalucia namely its economic model and approach to spatial planning. For instance, the consequences of continued, unbridled, tourism development for a region already struggling to meet the water requirements for its local population is rarely discussed and certainly not front and center in political discussions in the region.

We need to talk about adaptation to climate

The Brussels “bubble” will no doubt argue and debate the merits of the proposed 90% emission reduction target for GHG emissions over the coming months and years. However, if there is a case study on the need to take climate adaptation seriously it is Andalucia. We are witnessing in real time the realities of a changing climate and its impact on weather patterns, in this case rainfall. For humans and economic activity across the globe, it is the availability of regular water supply that is vital. As we see in Andalucia, relying on intermittent rainfall is not a strategy for water supply nor a basis for climate adaptation and resilience.