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How Spain is coping with the heat

August 16, 2022

Conserving water, creating shade, setting up climate shelters — Spain is trying to make this year's heatwave bearable.

Person lying on grass, seen from behind, a pink fan held over their head
Cooling off in the park: In big cities like Madrid, the heat can be almost unbearable indoorsImage: Paul White/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Temperatures in Spain in July were the highest since records began in 1961, according to the country's Ministry for the Ecological Transition, or MITECO.

In many cities, thermometers registered more than 44 degrees Celsius. The average temperature was 25.6 Celsius, an increase of 2.7 degrees compared to the averages recorded between 1981 to 2010.

A report on the Spanish television station RTVE showed how some Spanish cities have created so-called climate shelters, which are cooled to 26 degrees Celsius. These include libraries, sports centers, museums and schools. The shelters are intended primarily for elderly people, families with small children and babies, and people with chronic illnesses.

A woman and child walk past a billboard recording a temperature of 42 degrees
July 2022 in Spain was the hottest on record, with temperatures in some areas as high as 46 degreesImage: Angel Garcia/Zuma/picture alliance

Forest fires

In Europe this year, 660,000 hectares of land have gone up in flames. Data from the European Forest Fire Information System shows that the largest area destroyed — 265,000 hectares — was in Spain.

In order to contain forest fires better in future, on August 1, the Spanish government issued a decree that, as of now, obliges the autonomous communities — Spain's administrative regions, similar to Germany's federal states — to draw up plans for preventing and extinguishing fires in the coming year by October 31. The regional governments now have three months to provide specific information on, for example, the number of fire-fighting vehicles, personnel and equipment they will have on standby, and to designate the areas and time periods where and when there is heightened risk.

MITECO has already contracted four companies to reforest the area worst affected by the fires — the Sierra de la Culebra mountain range in the north-western province of Zamora — at a cost of €2 million ($2.04 million).

Falling water reserves

MITECO reports that the persistent heat and drought have caused Spain's water reserves to hit an all-time low. The ministry's monthly data sheet, last updated on August 9, records that they are now at 21,730 cubic meters — that is just 39% of total capacity.

Consequently, municipalities throughout Spain, as well as autonomous regions — Galicia, Catalonia and Andalusia in particular — have imposed measures to limit water consumption. These include restricting the water supply at night and turning off showers at the beach, as well as bans on people watering lawns, washing cars, or filling swimming pools.

A reservoir with little water in it and a wide bank of earth exposed
Alarming water shortage: La Vinuela reservoir near Malaga has almost dried upImage: Europa Press/ABACA/picture alliance

Rising sea temperatures

The Mediterranean Sea is increasingly becoming the Caribbean of Europe. According to Spain's Mediterranean Center for Environmental Studies (CEAM), between 1982 and 2021 its average water temperature increased by 1.32 degrees Celsius.

"Since the 1980s, the sea temperature on the Mediterranean coast has risen twice as much as the air temperature," Jorge Olcina Cantos, head of the Laboratory of Climatology at the University of Alicante, told the Spanish newspaper, El Pais. This year, the water temperature on the Spanish coast has been between 28 and 29 degrees since July 20, he said.

Olcina Cantos explained what was causing this: "Hot air masses from the Sahara accumulate on the water surface, warming it faster and faster. Since 1908, air temperatures in the Mediterranean have risen by 0.7 degrees Celsius, whereas sea temperatures have gone up 1.4 degrees."

Two women sunbathing on loungers on a beach
No respite: It's not just air temperatures that are rising - sea temperatures are as wellImage: David Zorrakino/EUROPA PRESS/dpa/picture alliance

This also means that temperatures don't drop as much at night, either, because the air is no longer cooled by the breeze coming off the sea. Rising sea temperatures also result in an increase in storms and severe weather.

As a protective measure, Olcina Cantos is calling for a revision of the legislation on coastal development. He says the tourist industry must also urgently adapt to the more extreme temperatures. Cities need more shade, he says, and greenery should be planted to cover the roofs and facades of buildings.

In spring 2021, the Spanish parliament passed the Climate Change and Energy Transition Law, which aims to help the country become climate-neutral by 2050. Goals include increasing the share of renewable energies in electricity generation to 42% by 2030 and phasing out internal combustion engines by 2040.

Over half of Europe hit by extreme drought

This story was originally published in German.