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In Spain, a years-long drought is pitting locals against the tourism industry


The Spanish region of Catalonia and its capital, Barcelona, are facing one of the worst droughts in recorded history. Reporter Marta Martinez says it's pitting farmers and locals against the region's huge tourism industry.


MARTA MARTINEZ, BYLINE: It's mid-February and unseasonably warm. I'm at Barceloneta Beach, one of the biggest tourist attractions in Barcelona. It's about 63 degrees right now. It's cloudy, but there's no sign of rain.

Even though it's still winter, water reserves in Catalonia are at 16% of capacity. It's the most serious drought the region has experienced in over a century. That has led the Catalan government to implement emergency measures limiting water use, like the showers on Barceloneta Beach.


MARTINEZ: They've been shut down.

David Sauri is a doctor in geography and coordinator of the water, territory and sustainability research group at Barcelona's Autonomous University. He describes the current drought as unprecedented.

DAVID SAURI: We are entering the fourth year with about half the average value of normal precipitation, meaning that it rains half what it used to rain in normal years.

MARTINEZ: Sauri says those who have suffered the most so far are not those living in urban areas.

SAURI: The ones that have experienced the worst of the drought are farmers, especially farmers that irrigate because, according to the law, they are the first ones that need to relinquish the rights if there is no water.


MARTINEZ: Earlier this month, hundreds of farmers took to streets of Barcelona with their trucks to protest against water restrictions, which have dwindled their ability to water their crops by 80%. Yet there is a pretty big group of people in Barcelona who use considerably more water than locals - tourists. More than 12 million tourists visited Barcelona in 2023, and they spent more than $10 billion during their stay. Studies say that they use between 2 and 5 times more water per day than locals. Ramon Vidal, general manager of Catalonia's Congress Palace, says the tourism industry is aware of the systemic problem with water scarcity.

RAMON VIDAL: This is a sector that is very well-prepared since a long time, and we are further more advanced than other sectors in concern about energy and water efficiency.

MARTINEZ: Vidal says companies like Melia Hotels, where he works, have been taking action to make their hotels more sustainable and to raise awareness with travelers.

VIDAL: Not changing towels every time, having water-saving devices in our faucets or reducing the capacity of our toilet time.


MARTINEZ: Back at Barceloneta Beach, I meet Phil Baker, a 45-year-old man from the U.K. who is visiting Barcelona with his wife and daughter. He has been in Barcelona for four days, but he wasn't aware of the state of emergency in Catalonia, even though the city has posted signs in English and French in the subway aimed at tourists.

PHIL BAKER: I did not know that. No, no. Even on the tour we had yesterday, that was not mentioned.

MARTINEZ: For now, water supply hasn't been reduced, neither in hotels nor homes. But the dry season isn't even here, and more tourists will come in the summer.

BAKER: It's such a big global issue, but we can all contribute in a small, small way.

MARTINEZ: On the showers at Barceloneta Beach, there's a sticker that reads, changing habits is just as necessary as the air we breathe. For NPR News, I'm Marta Martinez in Barcelona.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marta Martinez