RTL Today – Global warming: Drought threatens Spain’s ‘green gold’ harvest

In the scorching heat, Felipe Elvira inspects the branches of his olive trees, planted as far as the eye can see on a dusty hillside in southern Spain.

“There are no olives on it. Everything is dry,” the 68-year-old said.

He and his son own a 100-hectare (250-acre) olive farm in the southern province of Jaen in sunny Andalusia, a region that produces most of the country’s olive oil.

But a severe drought in much of Spain threatens to reduce their harvest this year.

“We are used to the lack of water, but not to this extent,” said Elvira.

The region previously received 800 liters (210 gallons) of rainfall per square meter, but is expected to receive around half that this year, he said.

“Every year it gets worse,” Elvira said.

Global warming is hitting Spain harder than most European countries.

The country has suffered three intense heat waves since May, damaging crops already struggling with an unusually dry winter.

“Olive trees are very resistant to water scarcity,” said Juan Carlos Hervas, an expert from the farmers union COAG.

But when droughts become extreme, the trees “activate mechanisms to protect themselves. They don’t die but they no longer produce anything”, he added.

– “Absolutely dramatic” –

Hervas predicts that the olive harvest on rainfed land will be less than 20% of the average for the past five years.

Harvesting from irrigated land will be only 50-60% of that average, he said.

But the water reserves are dwindling.

The Guadalquivir River, which provides Andalusia with much of its water, is in “an absolutely dramatic situation” due to the lack of rain, said Rosario Jimenez, professor of hydrology at the University of Jaen.

The reservoirs fed by the river are only at 30% of their capacity, according to the Spanish Ministry for Ecological Transition.

“Some even have 10% capacity – it’s pretty much dried up,” Jimenez said.

Farmers have also noticed changes in recent years.

“Not only does it rain less, but when it rains, it’s torrential. The water flows without penetrating the land,” Hervas said.

According to a study published this month in the journal Nature Geoscience, parts of Portugal and Spain are the driest in a thousand years due to a high atmospheric pressure system driven by climate change.

The phenomenon is set to increase, jeopardizing crops such as olives and vines.

At stake is a key export: Spain supplies nearly half of the world’s olive oil. Its exports of this “green gold” are worth some 3.6 billion euros (3.7 billion dollars) a year.

– Olive addiction –

Olive oil has been an essential part of the Mediterranean diet for thousands of years and olive trees cover many hillsides in southern Spain, often unsuitable for other crops.

“Many villages here are completely dependent on olive trees. Without olives, there is no more income,” Hervas said.

Seven out of 10 hectares of olive-growing land in Spain are not irrigated, according to the farmers’ union COAG.

With rising temperatures, 80% of Andalusia’s non-irrigated olive groves may no longer be suitable for growing olives, or at least some varieties of the crop, he added.

Quality could also decline as farmers will have to pick the fruit early, before it is fully ripe, the union said in a recent report.

Some farmers might be tempted to start irrigating their plots, but this would further deplete the stretched reservoirs.

Agriculture already consumes up to four-fifths of Spain’s water resources, Jimenez said.

“Not all land can be irrigated,” she said.

Back at her farm, Elvira is only too aware of the problem.

“You can’t run out of resources, everyone needs water. Honestly, I don’t know how we’re going to do it,” he said.

Teresa H. Sadler