‘It makes me so sad’: church reemerges from reservoir as Spain faces droughts

<span>The church of Sant Romà de Sau, the village that was flooded to build a dam in the 1950s.</span><span>Photograph: Ajit Niranjan/The Guardian</span>
The church of Sant Romà de Sau, the village that was flooded to build a dam in the 1950s.Photograph: Ajit Niranjan/The Guardian

Magdalena Coromina tapped the hard ground with her walking stick and looked up at a church that was meant to be underwater. Six decades ago, when engineers had built the reservoir in which she stood, they had flooded the town of Sant Romà de Sau and drowned its buildings. The rains that slaked the region’s thirst had kept the ruins covered.

But that world no longer exists. Struck by a drought that has dried the reservoir to 1% of its capacity, the remains of the village have come back into view. Crumbling stone structures now sit on cracked soil among ashen plants. The church, whose spire used to poke above the surface during dry spells, today stands high above the waterline.

“It makes me so sad,” said Coromina, an 85-year-old from the nearby city of Ripoll who came to see the ruins on an unusually warm February afternoon. She remembered rain and snow during winters when she was a girl. “Now? Nothing.”

Catalonia, a rich region in the north-east of Spain, is in the grip of a drought that is killing its crops, choking its economy and restricting the lives of 6 million people who live under emergency measures. Scientists do not know what role the climate crisis has played in shrinking the region’s water supply, but they say the fight to keep taps running is one that will sweep southern Europe as fossil fuel pollution heats it up and dries parts of it out.

The western coasts of the Mediterranean, in particular, will be hit by increased evaporation, shorter rainy seasons and less mountain snow cover, said Stefano Materia, a climate scientist at Barcelona Supercomputer Centre. In cities such as Valencia in Spain, Marseille in France and Genoa in Italy – where industry and tourism are already putting pressure on scarce water resources – “this will likely increase the vulnerability”.

Catalonia offers a glimpse of that future. At the start of February, after more than 1,000 days of drought, the regional government extended restrictions to cover Barcelona and other municipalities. Together with Spain’s ecology ministry, it announced plans to invest nearly half a billion euros in desalination plants to make salty water fit for the tap. Officials also want to ship drinking water from wetter parts of the country and double the aid money for emergency works on the leaky network of pipes.

But as they wait for rain to fall and infrastructure to improve, Catalans are divided on how to share the water that remains. The dilemma has pitted locals, farmers and tourists against each other as they fight over a resource that is growing more scarce by the day.

“It’s difficult to avoid these reactions, because when people suffer, they need to react somehow,” said Meritxell Serret, Catalonia’s foreign minister and former agriculture minister. “There is a lot that needs to be done – in every sector – and we are aware that we cannot demand they do that from one day to another.”

Farmers, who use one-third of the water in the internal basin where most Catalans live, face the greatest pressure to cut their consumption. The government has ordered them to use 80% less water for irrigation and 50% less water for livestock, while asking industry to cut water use by 25%.

The “injustice” of the restrictions and the effects of the drought has left farmers feeling powerless, said Albert Grassot, the president of a local irrigation community. “It’s a feeling of impotence, weakness and rage.”

Driving through his rice farm near the medieval town of Pals, Grassot said the drought weighed on his mind more than the coronavirus pandemic and the energy crisis. If no rain falls in the next three months, he said, his family will be unable to sow seeds for the first year since his great-great-grandfather started farming the land.

The effects will ripple beyond his own farm, he added. Rice paddies use lots of water because the grain grows in flooded fields. But in Pals, which is just 3km from the coast, the centuries-old practice helps stop salt water from intruding inland and wreaking havoc on other crops and ecosystems.

In Barcelona, where public fountains are dry and beachside showers have been shut off, the burden of drought is lighter than in the villages but still hangs heavy over the city. Posters in subway stations warn in stern letters that “water doesn’t fall from the sky”.

After a previous drought struck Barcelona in 2008, the city invested in recycling wastewater, desalinating seawater and persuading citizens to save more drinking water. Its efforts have increased supply and brought the city’s demand for water down to some of the lowest levels in Europe.

Andrew Ross, a geographer at Portland State University who has co-written a book on water politics in cities across the world, said Barcelona had been leading the way in many regards but that its ambitions still fell short of what was needed. “When even Barcelona is experiencing this kind of crisis – given its policies – it shows the rest of the world that it’s time to act,” he said.

Activists complain the government has been unwilling to crack down on tourists, who come for the hottest months of the year and on average use more than twice as much water as locals. Barcelona welcomed 10 million holidaymakers in 2022 – making it one of the most-visited cities in Europe – and the sector makes up 12% of the Catalan economy.

But hotels are starting to feel the heat. In the beachside party town of Lloret de Mar, a group of owners have asked the Catalan government for permission to buy a mobile desalination plant to avoid restrictions on their swimming pools. If they cannot fill them ahead of summer, they fear visitor numbers may plummet.

So far, the tourism industry has faced little pressure to invest in structural changes to save water. Showers are often the biggest users of water in a hotel and the “greywater” that goes down the drain can be easily treated if kept separate from sewage, said Gianluigi Buttiglieri, a scientist at the Catalan Institute of Water Research. But without laws to mandate this, he added, “there is no incentive for them to do so”.

The Samba, a three-star hotel in the centre of Lloret, is one of the few hotels in the Mediterranean that uses separate pipes. During renovation work 25 years ago, the management split the hotel’s pipes so it can treat greywater in a tank in the basement before piping it back to guests’ bathrooms.

The hotel is testing a separate system to filter it through stacked layers of plant-rich soil before disinfecting it. According to a study at the Samba that Buttiglieri co-authored last year, such a system would pay for itself within a decade.

Laura Pérez, a hotel manager responsible for sustainability, said that while the Samba had also been hit by restrictions on swimming pools – which under Spanish law cannot be filled with treated greywater – it was more resilient to drought than other hotels. “We are not suffering as much, because we need less water.”

A similar concept can be seen on the outskirts of Manresa, a small industrial city farther inland. Pol Huguet, a councillor responsible for the environment, has begun to rewild six hectares of land near an abandoned disco to make the area more diverse and resilient to extreme weather. But the drought has delayed the project by at least a year. The young trees have not grown tall enough for sheep to arrive without the animals eating them.

Pointing at a forest behind him, Huguet said humans have altered the landscape in ways that have made it too vulnerable to hot, dry weather. “A wildfire can advance with enormous speed if there is homogeneity – with all the trees at the same height, very dense – and that’s what we have here.”

Officials share his concerns. Wary of forests that have turned into tinder boxes, the Catalan government announced on Friday it would reinforce its fire prevention units in February, four months earlier than planned. In many parts of Catalonia, it said, the drought is raising the risk of wildfires by taking the death and decay of plant matter to levels “never seen before in extent and distribution”.

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But while the effects of the drought are in many ways unprecedented, locals say the concept is one that Catalans know well.

In Manresa on Saturday, residents held a festival to celebrate the construction of a contested medieval canal called La Séquia that connected the town to the Llobregat River six centuries ago. Built after a series of famines, the canal irrigated Manresa’s crops and later moved the looms of its once-thriving textile industry.

But a local bishop who owned mills upstream fought efforts to build it and excommunicated the entire town in the 14th century, worried that diverting the water would eat into his profits. Legends say he changed his mind after taking a flash of light as a sign that God wanted the canal built.

“Water wars have happened many times in history, in many places,” said Huguet, staring at the dry vegetation in front of him. “Now it’s happening again.”