Thirsty Europe: a story from Catalonia

As a result of climate change, droughts are on the rise in Europe and local and national governments are preparing for increasingly dry years. The photographer Michele Curel has investigated the situation in Catalonia and shares the results in this spectacular photo blog.

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Thirsty Europe is a cross border project that has searched for solutions to the problems generated by drought in the southern Alps and Mediterranean regions. This fascinating investigative story explores South Tyrol (Italy), Sicily (Italy), Andalusia/Algarve (Spain/Portugal) and Catalonia (Spain), through funding from the EU Cross Border Investigative Journalism Grant. Here, photographer Michele Curel vividly portrays the situation in Catalonia.

Mont Rebei Canyon, a masive 300 meter deep crevice
has the Noguera Ribagorzana river running through it.
This year the water level of the river has gone down 20
to 30 metres.

Boadella Reservoir reached 14% capacity this September 2023.

The Urgel Canal in Western Catalonia, a hydraulic infrastructure built 160 years ago (a technological feat when it was built), turned a very dry and arid area into a green haven. It is composed of many canals intended for irrigation and since then, the farmers have had abundant water.

In the 160 year old history of the canal they have never had water shortages until now.

Water distribution for irrigation has been reduced all around Catalonia, and in the Eastern Baix Ter region, by 50%. Farmers have not been able to plant crops on all their fields, or have changed the crops they have planted this year to either dry agriculture or crops that require less water.

Rice farmers have had no choice except to plant less, as rice fields cannot be used for other crops.

However, a research study has taken four years of trial and errors to obtain a successful rice crop with drip irrigation in rice fields.

The Institute of Agrifood Research and Technology (IRTA) invented the GIROREC drip irrigation. A sophisticated algorithm calculates the amount of water an apple orchard needs every week.

An apple orchard farmer with 35 hectares of apple orchards and who has made a considerable investment over the years installing GIROREC says that it will mean he will not be losing his whole crop this year. However, he adds, thanks to the sacrifice of the farmers who have planted less crops or have changed to less water intensive crops this year.

The Community of Irrigators meet every week or two to organize the distribution of water. The water keeper, Josep Maria Costa opens or closes the barrage and large water distribution infrastructures according to how the Community of Irrigators has decided to distribute the water.

Eduard Delofeu tells us he has to visit his corn fields every 8 hours during the 48 hours he has allotted to his area to make the most of the water for irrigating all of his fields.

The CREAF (Ecological and Forestry Applications Research Center) DEBOSCAT project has been studying the effects of drought on forests in all of Catalonia since 2012 and has been able to recommend adaptation and management measures for sustainable forest management techniques.

The Forest Science and Technology Centre of Catalunya (CTFC) HIDROBOSC research project studies sustainable forest management techniques that can increase the water flow into the river basins.

Since 2019, CREAF has been studying how native cattle can help maintain soil and water and how to adapt the middle mountain range to climate change, through the Life MIDMACC project.

The goal is to maintain or recuperate livestock, forest and agricultural activity and have a diverse and mosaic landscape. These are forests that are at constant risk of forest fires.

Researchers visit the test sites every two weeks to gather samples for study in the lab, monitoring the effects of forest management combined with livestock. They look at soil fertility and moisture, and also study the risks, the vitality and growth of the forest, and the generation of pastures, among others.

One of the preliminary results they are confirming through this study is that good soil quality is very important for carbon sequestration and the capacity to retain water. More fertile soil retains more water.

A winery in Western Catalonia has started using regenerative agriculture techniques and uses drip irrigation for a more efficient use of water as well as recuperating soil in the heart of the Garrigues region a very dry and arid agricultural region which has historically worked mainly with dry crops.

In May of 2022 the Climate Action Department of the Generalitat activated a protocol in the Canal d’Urgel area for water, food and drought. The local IRTA and Irrigation communities started meeting regularly to give recommendations to the farmers whose farms depend on the water from the Urgel Canal on how to alleviate the water stress on trees.

In some cases farmers have had no choice but to remove the fruit before it is ripe, losing the crop but saving the trees for future harvests.

Photographs and text ©Michele Curel. This project was made possible by the EU Crossborder Investigative Journalism Grant.

Read more in Michele’s blog post on the effects of climate change in Catalonia on forests and farmers.

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Michele Curel
Freelance photographer for 30+ years specialized in portrait and architecture. In the more recent past and after becoming a cork forest landowner in Catalonia in 2013 her interests have veered toward producing MULTI-MEDIA projects on women empowerment, bioeconomy, drought and sustainable forest management issues to bridge the gap between urban and rural societies.