Water lorries and reused wastewater: How EU countries battle drought

Cracked earth is visible at the Sau reservoir north of Barcelona, Spain, April 18, 2023.
Cracked earth is visible at the Sau reservoir north of Barcelona, Spain, April 18, 2023. Copyright AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti
By Graham Keeley
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Spain, Italy and France are being impacted by drought and are using various methods to alleviate water stress for residents and farmers.


Spaniards have a saying that during droughts, the trees chase after the dogs.

However, in L’Espluga de Francoli, it is the people who are desperate for any signs of water.

Like scores of towns across Spain, this municipality in the hills of Catalonia, has had water restrictions imposed since August last year.

Spain registered the driest start to the year since records began in the 1960s, with Catalonia and the southern region of Andalusia the worst region affected.

Like many other European countries which are struggling to deal with lack of water, Spain has invested in how to confront this problem, with a €12 billion programme designed to reuse more water, build desalination plants, and improve water infrastructure.

“We require structural responses and constant investment,” Spain’s acting Environment Minister Teresa Ribera said after announcing the aid package last week.

Several heatwaves suffered in Spain and other parts of Europe this summer have raised water evaporation while consumption increased.

Reservoirs across Spain fell to 37% of normal levels, according to the latest government statistics.

Prayers, bottles and water lorries

In L’Espluga, Father Antonio Rosario has even called on the Lord to ask the heavens to open at a special service which dates from the 18th century. But his prayers have not been answered yet.

The town's taps are turned off between 10pm and 7am, making it impossible to clean, wash plates or have a shower. As many Spaniards eat late, this affects their way of life.

During the day, villages collect water in bottles or buckets to have enough for daily essentials.

Up to ten water lorries every day, each carrying between 12,000 and 29,000 litres (3,170-7,660 gallons), bring relief to a town where aquifers are running dry.

“We have been on restrictions since August last year. The problem is that the underground water tables are running dry now so people with their own supplies from wells will soon be affected,” Pep Morató, council spokesman in L’Espluga de Francoli spokesman, told Euronews.

Authorities in Catalonia declared a 'state of exception' over the water shortage. Towns and villages under restrictions had to lower their consumption per person to 230 litres per day from 250 litres per day which was the level introduced in what authorities called 'pre-alert' situation. 

Water for human use has not been limited yet but restrictions mean watering for agricultural purposes will largely be banned and use for industrial and recreational purposes must fall by 25%.

Currently, reserves have fallen to 22%, just slightly higher than in 2008 (20.5%) when ships carrying water were sent to Barcelona to relieve the crisis.

Constanza Saavedra, of the Catalan government’s climate action department, said Barcelona will not have to ship in water on boats as happened during the 2008 drought.

“In comparison with the 2008 drought, we generate more desalinated water which is roughly the same as a full reservoir,” she told Euronews.


Wastewater and digital solutions

In France, the government is planning to increase the use of wastewater to cut public water consumption.

France’s Environment Minister Christophe Béchu warned that the water crisis “is not yet behind us”.

In an interview with the Libération newspaper published last week, Béchu said despite increased rainfall in some parts of the country during the summer, nearly two-thirds of the country’s water tables remained below seasonal averages.

He said that 62% of groundwater sources were below seasonal averages and 18% were “very low”. Some 1,022 communes across France were designated ‘natural disaster zones’ for drought, according to the government.

The communes are mostly supplied by water trucks or bottled water because the tap water is either unsafe to drink or their taps have run dry.


The worst affected areas were in the Mediterranean basin, the Rhone Valley and Brittany.

In March, French President Emmanuel Macron presented a €180 million water-saving plan to cut use by 10% by 2030 and increase the reuse of wastewater from 1% to 10%. Part of the plan is to fix leaks which waste 20% of supplies every year.

In Italy, farmers are turning to old and new techniques to save production of staples like olive oil and prosecco.

Last year, the country suffered the worst drought in 70 years but 2023 has seen another sweltering summer broken up only by damaging hail storms in the north.

Andrea Ronca, who grows cereals at his family’s cattle farm in Mantua in northern Italy, uses satellite images to track where his land is driest.


“I can adjust irrigation at any time, even from my smartphone, avoiding any waste,” Ronca told Reuters.

The share of land farmed using digital tools rose to 8% in 2022, from 6% the year before, while spending on tech by farmers and governments rose to €2.1 billion from just €100m in 2017, according to the Smart Agrifood Observatory of the Milan Polytechnic and the University of Brescia.

Winemakers are using sensors to monitor the air and soil to gauge temperature and evaporation from the leaves. This helps vineyards to withstand the drought.

Simone Rech, who produces about 250,000 bottles of Prosecco sparkling wine in Treviso near Venice, said rainwater and wastewater from washing the cellar is collected, purified, and reused.

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