History of Droughts

During the past 30 years, prolonged droughts affecting large portions of Spain's territory have occurred every decade (1980-1983, 1990-1994, and 2005-2008). Droughts have proved to be catalysts for legal reforms and investments in water infrastructure, as they often revealed weaknesses in the water management system that were tackled either during or shortly after the end of the dry spell. For instance, the first major reform to the 1985 Water Act was passed in 1999, after a major drought (1990-1994) that resulted in significant economic losses and large-scale water supply restrictions. Between 2005 and 2008, a new drought in several regions of Spain had less severe impacts relative to the one of the 1990s, partly because it was less intense and partly because several actions had been taken to avoid severe restrictions and environmental problems experienced during the previous drought (Estrela and Vargas 2012).

Droughts are also clear windows of opportunity to spur the implementation of solutions already present in Spain's water debate before the dry period. For instance, water markets were introduced in the 1999 reform of the Water Act but had been rarely implemented until the 2005-2008 drought. Moreover, that drought period served to "test" interbasin water trade— which was explicitly banned from the 1999 law reform (Hernandez-Mora and Del Moral 2015) but had strong support from some farmer lobbies and urban supply actors. Similarly, in 2006 the government passed a large program for the modernization of irrigation systems in the whole country. This program had been on the policy agenda since the early 1990s and was passed using a fast-track approval process using drought as a justification (Urquijo et al. 2015).

With the advent of democracy in the 1970s, Spain adopted a decentralized political system in which regions have competences over many policy domains (e.g., education, health, and environment protection). The 1978 Constitution also established that water had to be managed by river basin authorities linked to the central government for the basins shared by two or more regions, whereas for intraregional basins (i.e., those located within a single region), water had to be managed by regional water authorities. In this context, in each basin, droughts are managed mainly by the corresponding water authorities, often with strong support from the central government when investments or special legal provisions are needed.

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