Restrict water use or improve infrastructure?

The rains this spring have given a necessary respite to the reservoirs. Saint Peter has interceded: Catalonia has gone from drought to flowing water in more and more rivers, fountains and waterfalls. Even some swamps have broken records. The one of Sau –one of the main sources that supply Barcelona– has not had so much water for ten months, and the ruins of the ancient town that appeared when the reservoir dried up have once again been submerged under water, like a modern Atlantis.

The question that arises now is: what are we going to do so that situations like the one experienced in the Catalan region do not repeat themselves or do so with less severity? How will we adapt for the next lean period? Saint Peter is not always going to be so generous. Not only with Catalonia, but with the rest of the Mediterranean basins. Drought is a periodic phenomenon in Spain, typical of our climate. Therefore, many people wonder What measures can the country take? to guarantee supply. The debate is there: Consume less water or improve infrastructure? What is the solution to drought?

According to Guillem Martinprofessor of Meteorology and Climatology at Carlemany University, one would have to prioritize infrastructure that lead to sustainable development. «When we talk about water use, many times we only think about washing dishes or taking a shower, but we forget about the industrial use of water, which is much greater. Processed food, manufacturing clothing or the pharmaceutical industry consume enormous amounts of water. The Internet and, nowadays, cell phones also use water to cool the premises where the servers are located,” says Martín.

«Optimizing the use of water requires improving current infrastructure and creating new ones, but putting the circular economy first. For example: desalination plants generate a large amount of brine, water with a large amount of salt that has been obtained with a very high expenditure of energy to obtain fresh water. Instead of using only one of the products, fresh water, we could also take advantage of brine. There is no solution to droughts, we are in the Mediterranean and they are recurring phenomena, but we can adapt better,” he says.

The most critical voices against technocratic solutions such as desalination maintain that they do not serve to promote and consolidate agricultural, urban and tourism policies that tackle the problem at its roots, but rather that they “accept” an unsustainable development model. But Alberto Garrido, professor of Economics and Agrarian Policy at the ETS of Agronomic Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, argues that “desalination is a logical, efficient and controllable solution in the Mediterranean. Regarding regeneration, without a doubt, in Murcia and the rest of Spain it has a long way to go; Some more reservoirs could be useful,” he adds, despite the opposition they generate. “There is no single solution to the shortage, but a combination of measures.”

Managing demand and seeking solutions in civil engineering works is not a contradiction for him either. «Everything adds up: desalination, reuse, civil engineering works, better infrastructure, demand management“, achieve technical efficiency in use…”, says Garrido. Martín also supports the deployment of desalination plants, although he emphasizes that they must improve their environmental impact: «Taking water from the sea for domestic or industrial use does not have a global impact, but it does require very high energy expenditure. “We would have to analyze how many tons of CO₂ it emits, if they are not of renewable origin.”

The climatologist places the real dilemma in finding a balance between the search for new water resources and respect for the functions of natural cycles. «Earth and humanity are at a crossroads between prioritizing economic development or guaranteeing the sustainability of natural resources,” he warns. «The leaders will have to decide which will be the measuring stick, whether economic or environmental. Many times an infrastructure that respects the environment more is more expensive (economically) than one that does not, but perhaps we should stop valuing our actions from the economy and start doing so from environmental sustainability,” he alleges.

For his part, Garrido affirms that “Investment needs to be channeled in many lines”. The strategy, he says, “is outlined in the basin plans for the period 2022-2027, approved in January 2023.” These contemplate more than 20,000 million euros for investments in modernization, improvement of sanitation and purification, supplies, irrigation infrastructure… In his opinion, “we will always have dry periods, but it is about mitigating their effects, protecting the well-being of the people and ecosystems, and be economically productive». Martín, for his part, encourages “investing prioritizing environmental sustainability ahead of economic sustainability.”

Another point of clash between the sides that try to quell the endemic problems of drought in Spain is found in the Agriculture. On the one hand, the lack of rainfall reduces crops. On the other hand, environmental groups such as Greenpeace affirm that around 80% of water is consumed by agriculture. Is it possible to reduce this percentage without decreasing productivity? «In 2022 and 2023 we have spent much less than 80%; The irrigated area has decreased by 200,000 hectares and the uses have been prioritized. The economic efficiency of irrigation has doubled in 20 years. It is better to implement efficiency technologies and regulate uses, as has been done in basins that have been in a drought situation, not eliminate, as is often said, irrigation,” says Garrido.

Martín agrees that “these consumption varies depending on the geographical area. In the north, the percentage of water allocated to agriculture is less than 25%. For him, the primary sector is basic. «It is no more sustainable to bring cereals from Central America than to grow them with irrigation in the Peninsula. Obviously, it is possible to reduce water consumption without reducing productivity, and with the help of technology it would be even easier, but for this the administrations have to accompany the sector. Furthermore, to gain efficiency, crops could be adapted according to the area and its climate. Will all these solutions serve to improve the situation in 10-20 years? «If you prioritize environmental sustainability and have patience, yes. If when it rains again they forget about drought management again, we will be worse,” he concludes.