Casasola, in the northern Spanish province of Leon, during a drought


by Rose Maramba

No sooner than summer has begun than Spain, with 75% of its area now considered dry or semi-arid, is wilting under its first heatwave. The hotspots in the Andalusian cities of Seville and Cordova, the regions of Extremadura, the Canary Islands, and – why not? – Madrid are hit by thermometer-busting temperatures of +40ºC degrees. And though the weather bureau says the temperatures peaked on 26 June, it doesn’t feel like they’ll be waning off in a dramatic hurry. Besides, any reprieve will be short-lived. When the heatwave comes back, it will with a vengeance. This is only the beginning of summer, after all.

Heatwave in Vitoria, capital of the Basque Country, a usually cool community even in summer

Heatwave in September 2012 in the Iberian Peninsula about 3/4 of which is occupied by Spain. Blackish red = hottest land temperatures of up to 59ºC (139ºF)

It goes without saying that heatwaves are but one of climate change’s serious “offenses”. They’re responsible for the devastating droughts that go hand in hand with desertification. According to some reports, 31.5% of the land in Sapin is affected by desertification while 20% is already desertified. In addition – as if that weren’t enough! –  20% of the remaining land is at risk of turning into deserts.

Spain is, of all the EU member states, the most threatened by desertification.

One may not put all the blame on climate change, though. Human activity is a major factor. As matters stand, human activity and desertification are inextricably linked. Intensive agriculture which translates to over-exploitation of finite natural resources and abusive use of water supply is a direct cause of desertification.

Olive groves in Baños de la Encina in the Andalusian province of Jaen, the biggest olive-oil-producing province in Spain

Poster sales pitch: “Spanish oil is pure olive”

Did you know? Spain is the biggest producer of olive oil in the whole world, and the number one exporter. But there’s enough left in the country for local consumption, too. The Spanish people are the second biggest olive oil consumers worldwide. This speaks of the sheer volume of olive oil production in Spain.

Olive groves are scattered across the country, but the regions of Andalusia, Extremadura, and Castilla-La Mancha have grabbed the lion’s share of the country’s total olive land: some 2.2 million hectares out of a total area of approximately 2.6 million hectares. The total area planted to olive trees makes Spain’s olive plantation – of 70 million olive trees – the biggest tree plantation in Europe.

Olive oil, along with fruit and vegetable, is responsible for intensive Spanish agriculture. According to CaixaBank, Spain is Europe’s leading producer and exporter of fresh fruit and vegetables and the third largest in the world, trailing China and the US. A no mean feat considering that Spain is not much bigger than California (Spain’s 505,370 sq km to California’s 403,882 sq km). Unfortunately, this implies over-exploitation.

Doñana Natural Park’s wetlands in Huelva at the mercy of over-exploitation in the nearby plantations

Strawberries are the latest of Donaña’s woes

Recently, Spain has the EU worried; the strawberry plantations are encroaching far too much on the Doñana National and Natural Park that straddles the provinces of Huelva, Seville and Cadiz and has a biodiversity that is unique in Europe. Ninety percent of the water-intensive strawberry plantations are in the Doñana area, drawing upon the resources of nearby rivers and affecting the hydrology of the park. Since the strawberries have become one of Spain’s major exports to Europe, the boring of illegal wells to draw irrigation water from the underground aquifers has proliferated.

How much more human activity can Doñana take before it succumbed to desertification, marking the ultimate destruction of its uniquely diverse fauna and flora?


Images (via Wikimedia Commons unless stated otherwise)
Featured image/Casasola, Spain (2017)/Rodelar, CC BY-SA4.0
Heatwave in July 2022, Vitoria/Centenoyespelta, CC BY-SA4.0
Heatwave Iberia/Jacques Descloitres, PD

Olive groves/Allie_Caulfield, CC BY2.0
Spanish olive oil poster/Halloween HJB, PD via Flickr
Doñana/Technische Fred, CC BY-SA3.0
Strawberry/Sabrina Wendl, Unsplash