When the Spring runs dry

Cordoba, Spain. The sun beats down on everyone venturing outside. On a shaded terrace, sweltering café customers try to cool down with iced drinks and fans.

A standard summer day in southern Spain, right? Nope – this is Spring. On 27 April 2023, the city of Cordoba hit a record 38.8°C – roughly 15 degrees above the average maximum temperature.

Summer has not yet begun in the northern hemisphere. Yet as of April 2023, more than a quarter of Europe is in drought.

About 90% of mainland Portugal is suffering from a drought, including 20% facing a severe drought. In Italy, the Po River, which irrigates around one-third of the country’s agricultural production has 61% less water than it did in April 2022. It’s crazy to think that even some of Venice’s secondary canals ran dry in February.

Beyond Europe, Chilean Patagonia, its southernmost region famed for its glaciers, is facing its worst drought in 50 years. Abnormally low rainfall and warm temperatures in Alberta, Canada, have caused over 100 wildfires already in May, burning around one million acres and forcing
30 000 rural residents out of their homes.

No water, no life

Put simply, people cannot live where there is no water. By 2030, as many as 700 million people – almost one in every ten people – are at risk of being displaced because of drought. Already in Türkiye, due to severe droughts and recent earthquakes, reservoirs are less than half full. Both in Andalusia and in Catalonia, Spain, where the current drought is most severe, drinking water reservoirs have dropped to 26% of their capacity.

No water also means no food: cropland moisture – water stored in arable soil – in Argentina, Brazil and South Africa dropped by 6% or more over the past five years compared to the period from 1981-2010, disrupting global food supply.

In Spain, two-thirds of non-irrigated cereals will be lost to drought. Back in 2021, the drought in California, United States, cost the agriculture sector USD 1.1 billion in losses and nearly 8 750 jobs. And let’s not forget energy. The first half of 2022 saw EU hydropower output drop by more than 15%, worsening energy supply issues after ditching Russian gas.

Within the next few decades, 129 countries are likely to be exposed to drought, mainly due to climate change.

By 2050, droughts in some regions such as the Middle East and Sahel in Africa could cost up to 6% of annual gross domestic product (GDP). By 2100, drought losses in Europe, especially in the Mediterranean and Atlantic regions, could be five-times higher than they are today.

Don’t hang them out to dry

National and local authorities are taking action. Within the last two months, France presented a Water Plan with 53 measures related to awareness-raising, planning, funding and economic incentives to reduce water consumption and increase water quality. Germany published a National Water Strategy to enhance resilience to droughts by 2050. Italy approved a “drought decree” to tackle water scarcity and strengthen water infrastructure adaptation. In Catalonia, Spain, new water-use restrictions have just been introduced: farms must cut consumption by 40% and industry by 15%. Cleaning streets with drinkable water is no longer allowed. In the city of Enschede, Netherlands, a country where two-thirds of the population live below sea level, planners have  made renewed efforts to catch rainwater and make surfaces more permeable to face droughts.

Many parts of Europe are short of water,
compared to the rest of the world

source: Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas (wri.org)

What else governments can do?

  • Save every drop: circular economy approaches can provide solutions to reduce, reuse and recycle water. In cities, this means for example recovering energy from wastewater to heat and cool public buildings; reusing water for street cleaning and monitoring water consumption in green public spaces. For instance, residents of water-scarce Singapore use and even drink water recycled from wastewater and called NEWater.
  • Fix land to fix water: the Global Commission on the Economics of Water highlights that in addition to climate change, land-use changes, such as deforestation, wetland depletion and land degradation, affect rainfall patterns,. Land-use policies, including infrastructure development, should therefore strive to avoid biodiversity losses. For instance, the European Commission’s proposal for a Nature restoration law includes the target of no net loss of green urban space by 2030.
  • Get governance right: as argued by the OECD Principles on Water Governance, beyond infrastructure and finance, well-designed regulatory frameworks and sufficient capacity need to be put in place to foster water security. For example in the Spanish region of Murcia, informally known as “Europe’s garden” and one of the most affected regions by droughts, good water culture has shaped the lifestyle and way of working, helping reduce water consumption and increase efficiency.

As the recent landmark UN 2023 Water Conference demonstrated, all countries need to steer away from the “highway to climate hell” (cit. Antonio Guterres). Now is the time for action!

Read more on the OECD work on Water Governance.

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Oriana Romano is the Head of Unit, Water Governance and Circular Economy, Urban Policies, and Sustainable Development Division of the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities. In 2018, she initiated a Programme on the Circular Economy in Cities and Regions, which supports governments in developing and implementing circular economy strategies. She heads the OECD Water Governance programme, which she joined in 2013. Before the OECD, she was university lecturer in Environmental Economics at the “Centre for International Business and Sustainability”(CIBS), London Metropolitan University (London, United Kingdom) and the Department of Social Science of the University “L’Orientale”(Naples, Italy). She currently teaches “The Transition to the Carbon Neutral and Circular Economy in Cities ”at Sciences Po, Paris, France. She holds a Ph.D in “Institution, Economics and Law of Public Services”.

Junior Policy Analyst at | Website | + posts

Juliette Lassman is a Junior Policy Analyst in the Water Governance and Circular Economy Unit in the Cities Division at the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities (CFE). She has contributed to national and subnational policy dialogues on water governance, the circular economy and nature-based solutions, as well as work on the blue economy in cities. Previously, she worked on decarbonising transport at the OECD’s International Transport Forum. Juliette holds a Masters in Management specialising in economics and international business from IESEG Lille, France.

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Georges LAIME, hailing from Colombia and France, works at the OECD Water Governance and Circular Economy Unit. For the past four years he has been based between Paris and Athens, working as a consultant at Finance for Impact within the Green and Blue Finance Unit. Prior to that, he worked as a consultant at South Pole in the Climate Advisory service in Bogotá. Georges holds a bachelor’s degree in applied economics from the IAE Lyon School of Management and is currently finalising a master’s degree in environmental economics at Paris-Saclay University.