Scientists at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) had warned late last year that the country could see a massive spread of deserts as a result of continuing disregard for the environment—a phenomenon made worse by global warming. One third of Spain was in danger of turning into desert, and a further third was under threat, they had said.
In April The World Socialist Website had said disputes between Spain's autonomous regions were escalating over the country's ongoing water crisis and that the situation was the sharpest in northeastern region of Catalonia.
Government officials describe the present drought as the worst in a century. Rainfall has fallen to 56 percent of its previous average over the last six months across Spain.
Nationally, reservoirs are running at about half of their capacity. According to official data, reservoirs in Catalonia are at just 20.1 percent of their capacity, only 0.1 percent above emergency levels.
And now the New York Times reports that swaths of southeast Spain are steadily turning into desert, a process spurred on by global warming and poorly planned development.
Murcia, traditionally a poor farming region, has undergone a resort-building boom in recent years, even as many of its farmers have switched to more thirsty crops, encouraged by water transfer plans, which have become increasingly untenable. The combination has put new pressures on the land and its dwindling supply of water.
This year, farmers are fighting developers over water rights. They are fighting one another over who gets to water their crops. And in a sign of their mounting desperation, they are buying and selling water like gold on a rapidly growing black market, mostly from illegal wells.
Climate change means that creeping deserts may eventually drive 135 million people off their land, the United Nations estimates. Most of them are in the developing world. But Southern Europe is experiencing the problem now, its climate drying to the point that it is becoming more like Africa's, scientists say.
For Murcia, the arrival of the water crisis has been accelerated by developers and farmers who have hewed to water-hungry ventures highly unsuited to a drier, warmer climate: crops like lettuce that need ample irrigation, resorts that promise a swimming pool in the yard, acres of freshly sodded golf courses that sop up millions of gallons a day.
Unrestricted development along Spain's coastline—one third of it has been built up in the last 20 years—has destroyed some of the country's most important natural habitats, it has been pointed out.
Besides the hundreds of thousands of wells — most of them illegal — that have in the past provided a temporary reprieve from thirst have depleted underground water to the point of no return. Water from northern Spain that was once transferred here has also slowed to a trickle, as wetter northern provinces are drying up, too.
The scramble for water has set off scandals. Local officials are in prison for taking payoffs to grant building permits in places where there is not adequate water. Chema Gil, a journalist who exposed one such scheme, has been subject to death threats, carries pepper spray and is guarded day and night by the Guardia Civil, a police force with military and civilian functions.
While southern Spain has always been dry and plagued by cyclical droughts, the average surface temperature in Spain has risen 2.7 degrees compared with about 1.4 degrees globally since 1880, records show.
Rainfall here is predicted to fall 20 percent from this year to 2020, and 40 percent by 2070, according to United Nations projections, writes Elizabeth Rosenthal in New York Times.
And Paul Bond of the Socialist website cites shipment of water planned and of a desalination plant coming up in Catlonia.
But then scientists have argued that desalination plants are a shortsighted measure that could exacerbate the crisis of water supplies in the areas at greatest risk of drought, Bond warns. They are expensive to use, and energy-intensive.
The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) has argued that desalination plants may themselves have a damaging environmental impact, increasing salinity around the plant developments and destroying coastal areas. They also produce high emissions of greenhouse gases. The Spanish Association for the Technological Treatment of Water says that each desalination plant indirectly produces one million tonnes of CO2 a year.
Several recent scientific reports have warned of the enormous environmental problems that Spain faces as a result of pollution, coastline development, and global warming.
One report says that nearly 90 percent of Spanish cities exceed the legal air pollution limits, which are responsible for up to 16,000 deaths each year. Greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 52 percent since 1990, making Spain the most polluting country in Europe.
No one seems to have a clue as to how to tackle the burgeoning crisis. Clearly dark times are ahead for Spain, observers fear.