Contrary to popular belief that climate change impacts under-developed and economically vulnerable nations, the impacts of climate change are felt across the planet, increasingly more as the climate crisis worsens. While it is true that climate impacts disproportionately burden developing countries, the ongoing drought in Spain and other countries in Europe provide us with the reminder that climate change knows no boundaries.

According to the Ministry of Ecological Transition, approximately 27 percent of Spanish territory is classified as being in a drought "emergency" or "alert" due to drought conditions. Nationally, water reserves are at 50 percent of their capacity and even lesser in other areas. While water shortage issues are not new to the region, experts assert that the situation is worsening as a result of the escalating climate crisis. Approximately 20 percent of mainland Spain has already experienced desertification due to climate change and human activities. Additionally, an alarming 74 percent of the mainland is at risk of facing desertification in the future.

As lakes disappear, crops fail, and wildfires rage on, the conditions in Spain serve as a wake-up call for urgent action. In this regard, real-time data plays a critical role in enabling timely and effective climate action. It allows for monitoring climate and environmental indicators, providing crucial insights . This enables us to optimize interventions quickly, improving their effectiveness and maximizing the impact of climate action efforts. Additionally, real-time data can inform predictions, such as accurate weather forecasts and early-warning systems, that can help communities prepare for impending weather shocks.

Read our blog “Impact of Drought in Europe & China; The Need for Better Climate Data” to learn more.

Unveiling Spain’s Water Crisis by Harnessing the Power of SpaceTime™

Over the past few years, Spain has been grappling with the detrimental effects of climate change, resulting in an alarming water scarcity situation. In March 2023, Spain's meteorological agency AEMET declared that the country has officially entered a long-term drought owing to high temperatures and low rainfall over the past three years. Catalonia is one of the most affected areas, where the Sau Reservoir (Pantà de Sau) and the Susqueda Reservoir (Pantà de Susqueda) are located in the Spanish autonomous region Catalunya. These reservoirs were built in the 1960s by damming the Ter River and are a vital source of the region's drinking water, irrigation, and hydroelectric power. The declaration made by AEMET serves as a stark reminder of the urgent need for solutions to mitigate the impacts of this long-term drought.

In conjunction with the availability of medium to very high-resolution satellite data within days, cloud computing platforms have created new opportunities for developing timely and all-weather satellite-driven environmental and climate change indicators at high spatial and temporal resolutions. As a result, satellite data and processing capacities are no longer limiting factors in monitoring environmental and climate change indicators.

With Blue Sky Analytics’s visualization platform- SpaceTime™, we can better understand how the prolonged drought has impacted Spain's water resources. In the images below, SpaceTime™ reveals the stark contrast between past and present water levels, vividly depicting the crisis at hand.

Upon closer examination of the Susqueda Reservoir's surface area, it is evident that on April 2019, the water covered an area of 3.7 square kilometers. However, over the course of four years, the surface area of the water has consistently decreased, and as of April 2023, it now measures only 2.4 square kilometers. Similarly, in the Sau Reservoir, the water's surface area was determined to be 4 square kilometers on August 2021, but it has gradually decreased to 1.3 square kilometers as of April 2023. Unfortunately, there are no indications that the water area or levels will increase anytime soon.

Observe the tawny borders of the uncovered rock encircling the edges of the water in the reservoirs located between the blue and red boundaries. These particular areas are usually submerged when the water levels are higher, and this natural occurrence is commonly known as a “bathtub ring.” Due to the dwindling water levels in the Sau Reservoir, not only have the rocky areas become visible, but so has a belfry belonging to an 11th-century church and a nearby village that has been mainly submerged since the construction of the dam. The Belfry, usually concealed under the water, is now visible, with the church tower standing several meters above the water level.

Understanding the Causes of Drought

According to a technical report from the Joint Research Centre (JRC), which is the European Commission's science and knowledge service, a variety of factors contributed to the drought. These include:

  • Lack of precipitation: One of the major issues is a persistent lack of precipitation across various countries such as France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and the Black Sea coast. This dry anomaly has been particularly pronounced during the winter months.

  • Above-average temperature: This dry spell is further compounded by above-average temperatures, which worsen the impact of reduced rainfall on soil moisture content.

  • Lower Snowpacks: Another consequence of the dry conditions is the diminished snowpack in the Alps. The amount of snow water equivalent in this region has fallen well below historical averages, with minimal snowfall below 2,000 meters and a reduced thickness at higher altitudes. Warmer temperatures have also contributed to earlier snowmelt.

  • Low Soil Moisture: The combination of decreased precipitation and higher temperatures has led to low soil moisture levels in countries such as Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Benelux, Spain, Romania, Bulgaria, and Italy.

  • Lower river flows: The scarcity of water is also affecting river flows, with critical levels observed in France, the UK, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. River basins like the Rhone and the Po are experiencing exceptionally low water levels.

The Price of Thirst: Economic, Social, and Environmental Costs of Water Scarcity

  • Food Security: According to reports, Spain's harvest this year has been significantly affected by an extended period of drought, resulting in a shortage of food. Ecologists are warning that the country may soon be unable to maintain cereal crops such as wheat and barley. The farmers' association has also cautioned that farmers will face difficulties in feeding their cattle as pastures have dried up. Along with this, beekeepers are also experiencing the adverse effects of the drought as it has caused a shortage of vegetation and flowers in the mountains, leading to a third consecutive season without honey.

  • Supply Chain and Hike in Price: Spain is a major supplier of olive oil, responsible for about 40% of the world's output. However, the price of bottled olive oil in Spain surged by approximately 60% in 2022. As a result, sales volumes of olive oil in Spain decreased by 8% between the months of February 2021 and 2022, according to a study conducted by consulting firm Nielsen.

  • Drinking water shortage: The current state of water in Andalusia has become a matter of concern as the levels of reservoirs have plummeted to 30%. If the region fails to receive adequate rainfall, there is a likelihood that certain regions, like Seville, the regional capital, may face drinking water restrictions during the summer.

  • Heatwaves: Spain recorded its hottest-ever temperature for April, hitting 38.8C, according to the country's meteorological service. Schools will be allowed to adapt their timetables to avoid the worst of the heat. The Madrid underground has trains passing more frequently than usual in order to prevent long waits on the platform and public swimming pools are expected to open a month earlier than normal.

  • Risk of Wildfire: In March this year, over 4,000 hectares of land were engulfed by wildfires, marking an early start to the wildfires season this year. This has exacerbated fears within the country, considering that a total of 493 fires ravaged Spain last year, resulting in a record-breaking 307,000 hectares of land scorched.

To mitigate potential water shortages in the summer, countries in Europe are already implementing measures to conserve water and manage resources effectively. These actions aim to ensure the availability of water for various purposes and mitigate the impact of the ongoing drought conditions.

According to Catalan Water Agency data, the Sau reservoir’s water levels now stand at 9% of total capacity. Officials have thus decided to remove its fish to stop them from asphyxiating. But the race against time to save them may already be lost, with many dead fishes floating on the surface. While fish endemic to the river was transferred, introduced species however had to be euthanized.

The remaining water in the basin is being diverted to another, fuller reservoir nearby to stop its quality from deteriorating to becoming undrinkable.

Likewise, in France, authorities have announced a ban on the use of garden swimming pools in certain regions of southern France due to a severe drought and escalating water scarcity. The Department of Pyrénées-Orientales will be officially designated as reaching a "crisis" level of drought on May 10th. Starting from the same date, restrictions will be implemented, prohibiting car-washing, hosepipes, and filling swimming pools.

Europe’s water crisis underscores the urgent need for action to address the challenges posed by climate change. SpaceTime™ provides invaluable insights into the crisis, aiding decision-makers in formulating effective mitigation strategies, protecting ecosystems, and building resilient communities. By harnessing advanced technologies and collaborative efforts, we can strive toward a sustainable future where the devastating effects of climate change are mitigated.