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Dry winter drains reservoirs and ruins crops across Spain and Portugal

Parts of the old village of Aceredo, submerged three decades ago when a hydropower dam flooded the valley, are photographed emerged due to drought at the Lindoso reservoir.
Parts of the old village of Aceredo, submerged three decades ago when a hydropower dam flooded the valley, are photographed emerged due to drought at the Lindoso reservoir.   -   Copyright  Emilio Morenatti/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
By Emilio Morenatti  with APTN

Roofs peeking out of the water have become a common sight every summer at the Lindoso reservoir in northwestern Spain. In especially dry years, parts would appear of the old village of Aceredo, submerged three decades ago when a hydropower dam flooded the valley.

But never before has the skeleton of the village emerged in its entirety in the middle of the usually wet winter season.

With almost no rain for two months and not much expected any time soon, the ruins of Aceredo are dredging up a mix of emotions for locals as they see the rusted carcass of a car, a stone fountain with water still spouting and the old road leading to what used to be the local bar.

Emilio Morenatti/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
A house of the old village of Aceredo emerges from the water due to drought at the Lindoso reservoir.Emilio Morenatti/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

“The whole place used to be all vineyards, orange trees. It was all green. It was beautiful," said 72-year-old José Luis Penín, who used to stop at the bar with pals at the end of a day's fishing.

“Look at it now,” said Penín, who lives in the same county, pointing at the cracked, yellow bed of the reservoir. ”It's so sad."

While the arid zones of the Iberian Peninsula have historically experienced periods of drought, experts say climate change has exacerbated the problem. This year, amid record levels of low or no rainfall at all, farmers in both Portugal and Spain, who are growing produce for all of Europe, are worried that their crops for this season will be ruined.

If clouds don't unleash in the next two weeks, emergency subsidies for farmers will be needed, authorities said.

In the last three months of 2021, Spain recorded just 35 per cent of the average rainfall it had seen during the same period from 1981 to 2010. But there has been almost no rain since then.

According to the national weather agency AEMET, in this century, only in 2005 has there been a January with almost no rain. If clouds don't unleash in the next two weeks, emergency subsidies for farmers will be needed, authorities said.

Emilio Morenatti/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
With rainfall levels this winter at one-third of the average in recent years, large swaths of Spain are experiencing extreme or prolonged drought.Emilio Morenatti/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

But Rubén del Campo, a spokesman for the weather service, said the below-average rainfall over the last six months is likely to continue for several more weeks, with hopes that spring will bring much-needed relief.

While only 10 per cent of Spain has officially been declared under a “prolonged drought,” there are large areas, particularly in the south, which are facing extreme shortages that could impact the irrigation of crops.

The valley around the Guadalquivir River in Spain’s southwest was declared under prolonged drought in November. It is now the focus of a fierce environmental dispute over water rights near Doñana National Park, a World Heritage wetland site. The government of the Andalusia region wants to grant water rights to farmers on land near the park, but critics say the move will further endanger a major wildlife refuge that is already drying up.

Emilio Morenatti/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
Visitors walk at the old village of Aceredo.Emilio Morenatti/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

“The past two, three years have been dry, with the tendency toward less and less rain,” said Andrés Góngora, a 46-year-old tomato farmer in southern Almería.

Góngora, who expects the water he uses from a desalinating plant to be rationed, is still better off than other farmers who specialize in wheat and grains for livestock feed.

“The cereal crops for this year have been lost,” Góngora said.

Other areas in central and northeast Spain are also feeling the burn.

The leading association of farmers and livestock breeders in Spain, COAG, warns that half of Spain’s farms are threatened by drought this year. It says if it does not rain heavily in the coming month, rain-fed crops including cereals, olives, nuts and vineyards could lose 60  to 80 per cent of their production.

But the association is also worried about crops that depend on irrigation, with reservoirs under 40 per cent of capacity in most of the south.

Spain’s left-wing government plans to dedicate over €570 million from the European Union's pandemic recovery fund to make its irrigation systems more efficient, including incorporating renewable energy systems.

Spanish Agriculture Minister Luis Planas said this week the government will take emergency measures if it doesn’t rain in two weeks. Those would likely be limited to economic benefits to palliate the loss of crops and revenues for farmers.

Emilio Morenatti/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
A skeletal tree emerges from the low waters of the Lindoso reservoir.Emilio Morenatti/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Neighboring Portugal has also seen little rain since last October. By the end of January, 45 per cent of the country was enduring “severe” or “extreme” drought conditions, according to the national weather agency IPMA.

Rainfall from 1 October through January was less than half the annual average for that four-month period, alarming farmers who are short of grass for their livestock.

Unusually, even the north of Portugal is dry and forest fires have broken out there this winter. In the south, crickets are already singing at night and mosquitoes have appeared — traditional signs of summer.

The IPMA doesn’t forecast any relief before the end of the month.

The outlook is bleak: Scientists estimate that Portugal will see a drop in average annual rainfall of 20 to 40 per cent by the end of the century.

Portugal has witnessed an increase in the frequency of droughts over the past 20-30 years, according to IPMA climatologist Vanda Pires, with lower rainfall and higher temperatures.

“It’s part of the context of climate change,” Pires told The Associated Press.

And the outlook is bleak: Scientists estimate that Portugal will see a drop in average annual rainfall of 20 to 40 per cent by the end of the century.

Joseph Wilson in Barcelona, Spain, Barry Hatton in Lisbon and Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report.