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From scarcity to security: dealing with water stress in Spain

About the blog

Juliette Lassman
Policy Analyst. Water Governance, Blue and Circular Economy Unit. Cities, Urban Policies, and Sustainable Development Division. Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities (CFE). OECD

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  • From scarcity to security: dealing with water stress in Spain

Water stress is not new in Spain, but the pace of pressure is accelerating with climate change. Spain has the third-highest level of water stress among OECD countries, behind Israel and Korea. As of July 2023, with water reserves at an average 40% - their lowest level in thirty years – almost 9 million people across 600 municipalities faced water limitations.

Against this backdrop, in May 2023, the Spanish government announced a 2.2 billion-euro investment package to tackle the drought, of which 1.4 billion focuses on supporting affected irrigators and increasing water supply with new infrastructure, such as desalination plants and a water transfer for Doñana National Park. An amendment to the Water Law will strive to double the volume of reused wastewater. Spain already has 765 desalination plants and the highest level of water reuse in Europe – around 11%.

These measures cement Spain’s current focus on boosting water supply. But beyond infrastructure and investment, good governance is needed to foster water security. This holds particularly true for Spain, a quasi-federal state with an abundance of actors involved in water management beyond the national government, including 17 autonomous communities, 50 provinces, 8 119 municipalities, river basin authorities and associations of users such as irrigation communities.

The cheapest water infrastructure is the one that does not need to be built: managing demand should complement efforts to augment supply

As the cheapest water infrastructure is the one that does not need to be built, managing water demand should complement efforts to augment supply. This means creating a culture that values water as a scarce resource, as argued by the OECD Principles on Water Governance. This would involve:

  • Taking a system approach, to ensure that decisions made outside the water box – especially in agriculture, industry, energy and urban planning – are “water wise”. A good example is the Spanish Climate Adaptation Plan, which sets objectives across almost 20 policy areas, including water quality, quantity and planning. Further boosting circular economy policy could help the water sector save energy, create materials and recover water for agriculture, forestry and nature. For instance, the public-private water utility Emasagra’s “bio-factory” in Granada treated and reused 18.9 million m3 of wastewater for irrigation and maintaining the ecological flow of the Genil River; 14% of sludge was reused for compost and 86% for direct application on farms.
  • Redesigning economic tools to reduce water consumption. In Spain, household water costs less than €2/m3 on average and account for 0.9% of household expenditure, both among the lowest rates in the EU in 2022. Water abstraction charges paid by irrigators are also low, at around €0.02-0.1 per m3. Water charges should target users who abstract most and consider the degree of water scarcity, geographical specificities and the share of wastewater that could be reused. For instance, in the water-scarce state of Ceará in Brazil, water charges depend on climate conditions: they rise during drought years to compensate increased pumping costs.
  • If tariffs increase, raising awareness on the cost of water scarcity is needed for social buy-in. For instance, in Copenhagen (Denmark), water tariff increases combined with awareness campaigns on water consumption such as "Max 100" have helped the city halve water consumption since the 1980s. Social acceptance also depends on transparency, but data on water in Spain are fragmented across different entities and incomplete. According to the OECD, a one-stop-shop for data on water pricing, use and consumption would facilitate policy analysis and assessments.

Following the recent elections, discussions on the reform of the Spanish Water Law initially planned for 2023 may reignite and provide an opportunity to enshrine water demand management in law. As Winston Churchill said, “Never waste a good (water) crisis”!

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