Unprecedented €2.2bn drought response plan approved in Spain

Package of measures will help farmers maintain production and avoid food shortages after hottest April ever

The Spanish government has approved a €2.2bn (£1.9bn) plan to help farmers and consumers cope with an enduring drought that has been exacerbated by the hottest and driest April on record.

The measures, described as unprecedented by the government, were
signed off by the cabinet on Thursday. They include €1.4bn of funds from the environment ministry to tackle the drought and increase the availability of water, and €784m from the agriculture ministry to help farmers maintain production and avoid food shortages.

The plan came a day after the Socialist-led coalition government announced legislation that will mean outdoor workers such as refuse collectors, street sweepers and builders will not have to work when the Spanish meteorological office issues high temperature alerts. The move follows the deaths of a street sweeper and a leaflet delivery man during last July’s heatwave in the Madrid region.

Spain’s environment minister, Teresa Ribera, said her department would spend €1.4bn on building new infrastructure such as desalination plants; on doubling the proportion of water that is reused in urban areas from 10% to 20% by 2027; and on subsidising those whose irrigation water supplies would be reduced.

She said: “Spain is a country that is used to periods of drought but there’s no doubt that, as a consequence of the climate change we’re experiencing, we’re seeing far more frequent and intense events and phenomena.

“And we need to prepare for that by taking advantage of all the technical capacity that Spain has accrued and developed over many years. We need to deal with episodes such as the present one – and that requires planning, structural measures and also, obviously, short-term and immediate help plans.”

Ribera said promising more water was not the answer, stressing that investments had to be made to manage demand and drive efficient use of the resource.

The agriculture minister, Luis Planas, said most of the €784m promised by his ministry would go on direct help to livestock and grain farmers, who would also receive tax breaks.

He said: “The main objective is to secure the productive continuity of our primary sector – of our crop and livestock farmers – so that they can produce food, which is a fundamental element when it comes to providing for our citizens, but which is also very important when it comes to food prices.”

While the government said it had approved the measures in response to the drought, high temperatures and the war in Ukraine, the opposition conservative People’s party (PP) accused it of trying to con voters as Spain prepares to vote in regional and municipal elections on 28 May.

The PP’s leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, said the government had responded too late to the water shortage and called instead for an urgent meeting of regional presidents and the creation of a national water authority to oversee improvements to infrastructure.

Nevertheless, the PP, which governs the large southern region of Andalucía, has recently faced bitter domestic and international criticism over its plans to legalise strawberry farms that could threaten the survival of one of Europe’s most important wetlands.

Water supplies to the Doñana natural space, whose marshes, forests and dunes extend across almost 130,000 hectares (320,000 acres) and include a Unesco-listed national park, have declined drastically over the last 30 years because of climate breakdown, farming, mining pollution and marsh drainage.

Last week, however, the PP regional government shrugged off such concerns – as well as warnings from Unesco, the European Commission and many wildlife and conservation groups – and began fast-tracking a new law that would increase the amount of irrigable land around Doñana by 800 hectares. The legislation, proposed by the PP and the far-right Vox party, will also serve as an amnesty for the strawberry farmers who have already sunk illegal wells there.

While all of Spain has been in drought since January 2022, water supplies in Catalonia have fallen so low that authorities introduced laws in March including a 40% reduction in water to be used for agriculture, a 15% reduction for industrial uses, and a cut in the average daily supply per inhabitant from 250 litres to 230 litres.


Sam Jones in Madrid

The GuardianTramp

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