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The heat waves and forest fires that swept the Mediterranean this summer have taught Europeans a dire lesson about the dangers of climate change. But many experts also fear a long-term ailment: desertification.
An often irreversible process that is becoming a growing problem in Europe – especially in Spain, where around a fifth of the country is already affected.
“Desertification is one of the world’s four largest areas of the environment, along with climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution,” said Elias Symeonakis, an expert on the subject at Manchester Metropolitan University. “We depend on the areas that are deteriorating. . . for our food and our people. Once they are dismantled, there is not much you can do. “
Desertification can conjure up romantic images of sand dunes. In fact, the process is more mundane. It refers to the degradation of land in arid areas, making it unproductive and barren.
Often the main cause is human acts such as over-farming and over-irrigation, which erode the soil and drain aquifers. The problem is terrifying in Spain, where agriculture has steadily industrialized and three quarters of the landmass is already generally arid or semi-arid.
“Spain is the EU country with the greatest risk of desertification,” Teresa Ribera, deputy prime minister and environment minister, told the Financial Times. She added that the government plans to present a national strategy this fall, the first in 13 years.
Regions in the south-east and east of Spain are among the worst-affected regions in Europe, also because they are cut off from the more moderate north by mountain ranges. But desertification is also occurring in Italy and Greece. In North Africa, the Palestinian Territories and Mozambique the crisis is even more serious. In the US, excessive water use combined with recent droughts is constantly drying up the American West.
The prospect that world temperatures will rise 1.5 ° C from pre-industrial levels by 2040, as highlighted in this month’s IPCC Climate Change Report, makes matters worse. The increasing frequency of forest fires can affect the fertility of topsoil. Hot summers can also turn the soil into dust while extreme rains wash it away.
In Spain, around 20 percent of the country has already been deserted, mainly for historical reasons such as the destructive mining and overland farming after the conversion of the land expropriated by the Catholic Church in the 18th and 19th centuries. In such areas, the productive land is no longer able to produce significant crops for human or animal life, although some vegetation remains.
Satellite imagery shows that another percent of Spanish territory is being actively degraded due to intensive agricultural practices, although a larger area is also indirectly affected.
“It’s like a black hole,” said Gabriel del Barrio, researcher at the Arid Zone state experimental station in Almería, one of the hardest hit areas. “This 1 percent endangers the landscape for kilometers. . . Consume water and cause other damage. “
He added that, contrary to a popular misconception, desertification does not mean desert encroachment. “The Sahara, for example, is a very mature system,” he said. “Instead, it is about the unsustainable overexploitation of natural resources, which are only replenished very slowly, if at all.”
In contrast to all the pristine sands of the Sahara, desert areas such as the Sierra de Gádor in Almería have a thin soil that is lightly covered by vegetation. Meanwhile, the rapidly desolating area of eastern Spain can appear lush and green due to the water that comes from a much larger region.
Del Barrio, like many other experts, combines desertification with altered land use, industrialization of agriculture and intensive irrigation. Such changes have helped increase Spain’s agricultural income by nearly 50 percent in the decade through 2020. But the agribusiness also uses almost seven times as much water as all Spanish households.
Such use of the earth’s resources can take a heavy toll. According to the EU, around a quarter of the country’s aquifers are overfished. A modeling by Jaime Martínez Valderrama of the University of Alicante shows that the soil for wheat and sunflowers in the province of Cordoba could be depleted in six decades.
The olive industry is another example. Spain has been known for exporting olive oil since Roman times. But while the crop traditionally required little to no irrigation, today it is often grown in high-density orchards, where the plants look more like bushes than trees.
These can be harvested by machine, a major productivity advance from the age-old tradition of farm workers cutting trees until the olives rain. But such intensive agriculture also requires more water.
In the provinces of Jaén and Granada, the olive industry is the main consumer of water. In Andalusia, agriculture is responsible for almost 80 percent of the region’s total water consumption.
Industry groups say more efficient irrigation systems have enabled agriculture to reduce their water use this century. Nevertheless, consumption in the industry has risen again over the past decade. Experts fear that current trends are not sustainable.
“It’s an old saying, ‘the more water, the sweeter the fruit,’” says Vicente Andreu Pérez, a senior researcher on desertification at the Spanish National Research Council. “But we cannot increase agricultural profits indefinitely. Everything has a limit and if we reach the limit in this case, we cannot go back. “