The Guardian view on water politics in Europe: a new fault line | Editorial
The Guardian view on water politics in Europe: a new fault line | Editorial –
In April, Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, suggested that severe drought would become “one of the central political and territorial debates of our country in the coming years”. That stark warning surely applies to southern Europe as a whole, as the prospect of another summer crisis looms, following a disastrously dry winter.
An absence of melting snow from the Alps has left Italy’s Po River as shallow as during last year’s searingly hot summer. In January and February, France recorded the highest number of rain-free days since records began, and water restrictions are in place in the Pyrénées-Orientales region. About 90% of mainland Portugal is suffering from drought, judged to be severe in one-fifth of the country. In Spain, from Catalonia to Andalucía, unseasonable heat has contributed to reservoirs drying up and a disastrous drop in olive oil production. By the middle of this month, southern Spain had received barely 30% of expected rainfall. As temperatures continue to rise, and Europe warms faster than the global average, drought across vast swathes of territory is simply becoming the norm.
There are obvious moves that can be made to alleviate water shortages. A quarter of drinking water in Europe is lost because of leaky pipelines. In Italy – one of the worst offenders in this respect – a drought taskforce has been created to improve water infrastructure. In France, Emmanuel Macron has set a 10% water savings target for all sectors of the economy by 2030 and demanded far greater reuse of wastewater. New, low-energy desalination techniques will be key to guaranteeing future supplies of water for human consumption.
There is, however, no foreseeable technical fix that will allow difficult decisions over an increasingly scarce resource to be evaded. The politics of a new, parched reality will be fraught and contested, particularly in relation to food production in transformed terrain. In France, plans for new reservoirs to irrigate farmland have led to violent clashes between police and environmental protesters, who argue that agricultural practices need to become less water-intensive.
In Andalucía, regional proposals to legalise irrigation in part of the Doñana Natural Space – one the world’s most important wetlands – have become a wedge issue ahead of local elections this weekend. Vox, a far-right party which has made political gains through downplaying the severity of the climate emergency, has positioned itself as a champion of the strawberry farmers who would benefit from the plans. In Seville, thousands have demonstrated against the project, which has been condemned by both Madrid and the European Commission.
Global heating will eventually force rural economies such as those in Andalucía to diversify to survive. They will require substantial assistance from both national governments and the European Union to do so. More needs to be done to help those who find themselves at the sharp end of an emerging crisis for agricultural production. An absence of proper economic support will breed dangerous resentment in regions that have traditionally prided themselves on supplying Europe’s fruit, vegetable and cereal needs.