The recipe to better prepare for drought

Meteorological drought, understood as precipitation below the historical average, is a natural, unavoidable phenomenon that exists in all climates. There have been and always will be droughts –you cannot control how much it rains–, but what can be done is to catch us prepared. And that’s where water management comes into play.

The recipe that they usually give us to “be prepared” is almost always the same: “we need more water” or “we need more reservoirs”. But this recipe works less and less on its own. And it will cost more and more when all the climate change scenarios point to temperatures increasing in the Iberian Peninsula. Therefore, what can be done?

Planning: the first step

Planning is a tiny job that looks much less than announcing emergency works or requesting millions in aid from the European Union. In fact, it barely appeared in the media that on March 31 the drafts of the special drought plans (PES) for inter-community basins were published. They are already the third generation of PES –since its first version was approved in 2007– since they are periodically reviewed to adjust and improve their operation.

In the same way, 87% of the population in the inter-community basins lives in urban centers that have emergency plans to manage drought in the domestic sphere.

Drought management planning makes it possible to avoid further damage and allocate available resources according to pre-established priorities. Although most citizens do not even know they exist, the PES are essential for water managers to have a clear protocol to establish when we are in a drought, at what level of alert are we in terms of water availability, what actions must be taken set in motion to move as far away as possible the entry into the next alert level, etc.

The PES are one of the rare examples of a society that does not stumble twice on the same stone, since they arise from the catastrophic management of the drought of the years 1991-1995. They are something in which Spain is a pioneer and a recognized example of good practice at an international level.

Second step: protect the sources

A truly effective management of drought is done when it rains, trying to protect the good condition of rivers, lakes and aquifers, which act as “water factories”, to use the words of the first director of the European Environment Agency, Domingo Jimenez Beltran.

In Spain, more than 44% of the rivers and aquifers are in poor condition, due to pollution problems or excessively intensive use of their waters.

These numbers tell us unequivocally that we are approaching this episode of drought with part of the “water factories” damaged. This means, among other things, that they will not be able to provide all the “services” that they are capable of generating naturally. Improving the state of aquatic ecosystems is not only important from an ecosystem point of view, but is also a very pragmatic and utilitarian approach to secure water for our socio-economic needs.

Third step: do not live on the edge

Drought worries us when it can generate an imbalance between availability and demand, that is, water scarcity. If we exploit the available resources to the limit, there is no ESP that saves us from scarcity. Living on the edge takes away our resilience.

Professor Ramón Llamas, Professor of Hydrogeology at the Complutense University of Madrid, when speaking of drought, used to quote the headline of a German weekly on water management in Spain. The article in question was titled durre hausgemacht (Homemade Drought) to emphasize that in Spain meteorological droughts occur and can be severe, but that people take care that their effects are much more so because we speed up and even exceed the capacity of the system to provide us with water.

For example, drought is “manufactured at home” when irrigation is increased without resources being available to meet these demands. Or when the available resource is allowed to become polluted. At the next drought, the system will be under even more stress and will fail sooner, leaving us in the scarcity that we have manufactured for ourselves by not knowing or wanting to set limits.

Last step: reduce consumption

Lastly, truly effective drought management requires reducing consumption. It can be through rethinking land uses, but also through good practices and technical improvements. For example, in the 1991-1995 drought, the partial evacuation of the city of Seville was even considered due to the impossibility of ensuring the supply. Currently, after five years of meteorological drought, Seville still has enough water for its supply. The reason? The Andalusian city today consumes 45% less water than 30 years ago, despite having 15% more inhabitants.

It has achieved this thanks to the application of efficiency measures in the use of water (more efficient household appliances, more efficient toilets…) and by reducing leaks in the distribution networks.

These saving solutions, however, do not have the same effects in irrigation, where going from irrigation by flooding or sprinklers to drip irrigation improves the quality of life of the farmer and makes it possible to fine-tune the application of fertilizers, but does not usually reduce the costs. consumption in absolute terms, since often the volumes saved are used to produce more crops or irrigate more hectares. It is the so-called “rebound effect” or Jevons paradox, whereby technological improvement to save a resource leads to the consumption of that resource increasing instead of decreasing.

There are regions (Catalonia, part of the Guadalquivir, Ebro and Guadiana) and groups (cattle farmers, rainfed farmers, some small municipalities) that are already suffering the negative effects of the meteorological drought. In other regions of Spain, however, the exploitation systems are not yet on alert. There they still have an opportunity to sow good water management that will allow them to be more prepared if the rains are finally late in coming.

This article was originally published by the Office for the Transfer of Research Results (OTRI) of the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM).

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