Agriculture vs tourism: How are farmers and hotels coping with the Spanish drought?

Agriculture vs tourism: How are farmers and hotels coping with the Spanish drought?

Standing in a field of apple trees in Catalonia, fruit and cereal farmer Ramón Falguera looks worried.

Last year, fruit harvests dropped by around a third and wheat by half due to a lack of rain and restrictions on water use in this area of northeast Spain.

The water canal used for irrigating the farmland, which stems from rivers born in the Pyrenees mountains, only opened for a month last spring for the first time since it was built 160 years ago.

The drought is thought to be the worst in 200 years, hitting large swathes of the region following more than three years of low rainfall and record temperatures due to climate change.

With no end in sight, farmers like Falguera are concerned that the water they rely on for irrigation will be cut off again.

How are farmers impacted by Spain’s water restrictions?

In early February, when reservoir levels in parts of the region dropped to below 16 per cent, the government declared a state of emergency in many areas of Catalonia.

Pere Aragonès, head of the regional government, announced restrictions across several different sectors. The amount of water that the agricultural sector - the biggest consumer of water - could use to irrigate crops was cut by up to 80 per cent.

For Falguera, a lack of rainfall and local water restrictions will likely mean two irrigations this year instead of the usual eight.

The situation was already critical for irrigation farmers in parts of Catalonia, according to David Saurí, geographer at the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona and an expert in water management.

In some parts of the region it is the third year many farmers are unable to sufficiently irrigate their crops. This has had knock on effects for entire communities. Saurí calls it “a catastrophe.”

In March, Aragonés relaxed some of the measures originally imposed on the agriculture and cattle industries following pressure from these sectors.

‘Bad guys’ and ‘good guys’ of water use

While the agricultural industry is only responsible for 3 per cent of the region’s economy, many argue it should be seen as an essential industry. Instead, farmers in many parts of the region “feel badly treated” due to the lack of water, says Saurí, “while other economic sectors don’t have these problems.”

This includes the tourism industry. Though the sector is prohibited from filling swimming pools with freshwater in hotels and campsites in many areas, Aragonès rejected calls to enforce further restrictions on the sector, such as prohibiting cruise ships from docking in Barcelona’s harbour.

On 20 March, 40 activists reportedly cut off water to the Barcelona Tourism office, calling for more extreme restrictions on the sector.

According to Saurí, the average tourist in Barcelona is estimated to consume at least 60 per cent more water compared to the typical resident. But he is quick to acknowledge that tourism is not a monolith.

“Tourism is not what we would call the ‘bad guy’ of the movie … but there are lots of ‘bad guys’ and lots of ‘good guys.’ Not all tourism is the same,” says Saurí, explaining that people consume relatively little water in campsites compared to those staying in high-end hotels.

He added that in agriculture and cattle farming there are also big interests and businesses.

Tourism sector bets on desalination

A sesalination plant for use at Lloret de Mar.
A sesalination plant for use at Lloret de Mar. - HIDRO Water

The tourism industry has already been implementing water-saving methods for several years to reduce their bills, according to Saurí. These include more efficient showers and toilets.

But in one of Catalonia’s coastal tourist destinations, Lloret de Mar, the local hospitality association is now going a step further.

Due to the current restrictions, Lloret’s hotels have bought a mobile desalination machine for a reported €1.5 million to serve around 200 hotels.

“Once we’ve removed the salt [from the seawater] we’ll fill the swimming pools of the hotels,” says Enric Dotras, president of the association. Currently, the machine can generate 50 cubic metres of water per hour, but he adds that this will be increased in the future if needed. He claims that it will generate sufficient amounts of water.

“We are a tourist destination … where normally tourists enjoy the installations [in the hotels],” he says. “We have to keep this in mind if we want to maintain these businesses, and the indirect and direct jobs that come with them.”

Why are desalination plants controversial?

Tourism represents more than 20 per cent of Catalonia’s local economy.

In January alone, one million tourists stayed in hotels in Catalonia, and over 22,000 people were working in hotels. This normally rises dramatically in the summer months, raising concerns about the increased strain on water resources.

According to Saurí, if it doesn’t rain this summer, tourism in the region will suffer. But he cautions that the private use of a desalination plant by the tourism industry could cause frustration from other sectors that do not have the economic ability to pay for a plant.

“[Farmers] are told not to irrigate because there’s a drought, and they are seeing a campsite or a hotel nearby … that has a full swimming pool,” he says.

Greenpeace has also raised alarm about the environmental impact of desalination plants.

A recent Accenture report found that the plants increase energy use up to 23 times more than conventional water sources. It noted the substantial risks to marine life caused by the disposal of brine, the residue left after desalination.

“It can kill all the marine flora,” says Saurí, adding that it has to be managed really well.

What are the alternatives for Spanish water?

Despite these environmental risks, many in the agricultural industry also see desalination as one of the few ways to provide enough water to ensure industries can stay afloat.

The Catalan government last year announced it would invest almost €500 million from EU funds in desalination plants, yet it will take years to see any positive effect.

Many believe that water systems across the region should also be updated. According to the region’s water management agency, the Agència Catalana de l'Aigua, in 2022 Catalonia lost a quarter of its water due to leaks.

Pol Dunyó Ruhí, an organic smallholder farmer in the Barcelona province, says that water reuse and other alternatives should be launched to improve water management.

“I think the restrictions are absurd, and really unequal,” he says, but he adds that some farmers are using wasteful irrigation techniques when they could use more efficient methods.

“I don’t know if it’s because the farmers refuse, or because there is no support for installations of this kind … but it’s nonsense,” he says.

He also notes that restrictions should be applied with an ecological approach, highlighting how farmers cultivating vast fields of corn - a high water use crop produced to feed industrial chickens and pigs - are not treated any differently to those that use water more prudently.

For Falguera, more modern irrigation systems are also an essential way to lessen water consumption. This includes drip irrigation: delivering water directly to plants via a network of tubes or pipes.

“With modernised irrigation systems, we would be able to manage really well with the water that we have this year,” he says. Four irrigations would be sufficient for a fruit tree watered using a modernised irrigation system, he adds. “Water wouldn’t get wasted.”

Saurí notes that it's important to ensure farmers don’t have to stop cultivating. “If it doesn’t rain this summer, I honestly don’t know what will happen,” he says.