Ebre river management body declares 'state of exceptionality' in western Catalonia due to drought

Decision comes a day after Canal d'Urgell closes irrigation system ahead of time in historic first

A worker of the Canal d'Urgell irrigation system opens the water supply on the first day of the watering campaign on March 27, 2023
A worker of the Canal d'Urgell irrigation system opens the water supply on the first day of the watering campaign on March 27, 2023 / Oriol Bosch
Catalan News

Catalan News | @catalannews | Barcelona

April 26, 2023 12:18 PM

April 26, 2023 07:13 PM

The Hydrographic Confederation of the Ebre (CHE), the river basin management body, declared a 'state of exceptionality' in western Catalonia's Segre tributary area as a result of the 30-month drought that is seriously impacting the region's farmers. 

This decision comes only a day after the Canal d'Urgell closed its irrigation system ahead of time for the first time in its 150-year history due to the lack of water, affecting 50,000 hectares of farmland. The canal also supplies water to some 77,000 inhabitants. 

The CHE governing board, which is meeting today in Zaragoza in the neighboring region of Aragon, says the Rialb and Oliana reservoirs in western Catalonia have had insufficient water for the past 10 months, a situation that is "much worse" than in other basins. Together they are currently only at 11.8% capacity: 5.4% in Rialb and 42.6% in Oliana. 

CHE president Maria Dolores Pascual stated before the meeting that declaring a 'state of exceptionality' would help farmers affected by the drought and the Urgell Canal irrigation system closure request public aid as agricultural businesses expect millions of euros in losses.

It is also set to lead to the creation of a permanent committee that will oversee the state of the drought. 

Despite this declaration, the CHE has not imposed restrictions as it says doing so falls under the Comunitat General de Regants dels Canals d'Urgell water authority's jurisdiction, the same body that decided to close the canal early.

According to Pascual, any measures the Canal d'Urgell water authority chooses to adopt must be "sensible and correct" as "ensuring reserves" is essential. 

Meanwhile, the Catalan government regretted the "lack of readiness" of the CHE when taking measures to fight the lack of water. For the Catalan climate action minister, Teresa Jordà, the decision "out of nowhere" does not help farmers plan their day-to-day.

In fact, Jordà said she had asked the Ebre river management body over a month ago, "when they would implement restrictions or a special drought plan like the one they've implemented today and they did not give me an answer," during a speech beside Catalan president Pere Aragonès on Wednesday midday.


Canal d'Urgell: only enough water until September

The Canal d'Urgell will be opened intermittently for a week and closed for three days as is done in the winter.

But because water consumption is much higher in the summer than in the winter, the canal's water authority will replenish supplies to guarantee towns have enough reserves to meet the demand. 

This, however, is all but guaranteed in the long run as there is currently only enough water "until the end of September" if it does not rain according to Rafel Panadés, the person in charge of overseeing municipal supply from the canal.

Eastern reservoirs at 25% capacity

After weeks without significant rainfall, reservoirs managed by the Catalan government, that is to say, those in the eastern half of Catalonia minus the Ebre river delta, are at an average of 25% capacity as of April 26, 2023, according to the Catalan Water Agency.

Learn more about the issue by listening to the Filling the Sink podcast episode from September 2022.