Spain Launches a New Strategy Against Desertification

Desertification in the world’s top olive oil-producing country is being fueled by the ongoing drought and poor land management practices.

Marismas del Odiel National Park in Andalusia, Spain
By Paolo DeAndreis
Jul. 18, 2022 16:23 UTC
Marismas del Odiel National Park in Andalusia, Spain

The Spanish gov­ern­ment has announced a new com­pre­hen­sive multi-year action plan to com­bat deser­ti­fi­ca­tion, a phe­nom­e­non that is affect­ing two-thirds of the coun­try.

Desertification is con­sid­ered an ever-increas­ing threat to soil fer­til­ity and bio­di­ver­sity in many regions, includ­ing some of Spain’s most rel­e­vant olive-grow­ing areas.

Desertified land is the sim­pli­fied remains of an orig­i­nal land­scape… A deser­ti­fied area would take a very long time to restore its ref­er­ence eco­log­i­cal func­tion­al­ity.- Gabriel del Barrio, land­scape ecol­o­gist, Arid Zones Experimental Station

Until 2030, national and local author­i­ties, researchers, non-gov­ern­ment orga­ni­za­tions, farm­ers and other stake­hold­ers will par­tic­i­pate in the national strat­egy for the bat­tle against deser­ti­fi­ca­tion (ENLD).

It aims to increase bio­di­ver­sity and eco­log­i­cal resilience in the coun­try’s dri­est areas while pro­mot­ing actions to restore degraded soil.

See Also:Study Reveals Impacts of Climate Change on Spanish Olive Sector

The larger goal is to con­tribute to the preser­va­tion and recov­ery of the nat­ural cap­i­tal related to the dry, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas of Spain,” the ENLD announced in a press release. And to progress towards neu­tral­ity in land degra­da­tion by pre­vent­ing and mit­i­gat­ing deser­ti­fi­ca­tion and restor­ing degraded areas.”

Andalusia, the largest olive oil-pro­duc­ing region in the world and home to many of the world’s super-high-den­sity olive groves, is one of the most at-risk ter­ri­to­ries.

Among the dri­vers of deser­ti­fi­ca­tion, the ENLD cites inten­sive agri­cul­ture, live­stock graz­ing, and over-exploita­tion of water resources.

It also lists depop­u­la­tion of rural areas, aban­don­ment of for­est land, cli­mate change and wild­fires as con­cur­rent causes of the wors­en­ing sit­u­a­tion.

The national strat­egy will estab­lish a net­work of exper­i­men­tal areas for land restora­tion and pro­mote water resource con­ser­va­tion, soil con­ser­va­tion, land man­age­ment and forestry best prac­tices.

The strat­egy also calls for cre­at­ing a national atlas of deser­ti­fi­ca­tion, a pub­lic infor­ma­tional plat­form and a national coun­cil over­see­ing efforts to reverse deser­ti­fi­ca­tion.

While restor­ing and recov­er­ing affected areas is among the new strat­e­gy’s main goals, not all the dam­age can be undone.

A deser­ti­fied area would take a very long time to restore its ref­er­ence eco­log­i­cal func­tion­al­ity,” Gabriel del Barrio, a land­scape ecol­o­gist and deser­ti­fi­ca­tion expert at the Arid Zones Experimental Station (CSIC), told Olive Oil Times.

Land degra­da­tion means utter eco­log­i­cal sim­pli­fi­ca­tion and resource deple­tion,” he added. Therefore, the con­cerned ecosys­tem has a weak basis to progress. For exam­ple, where top­soil has been eroded, it is very dif­fi­cult to start a proper eco­log­i­cal sec­ondary suc­ces­sion. Of course, it can and will be done, but it will take decades or cen­turies in dry­lands.”

According to Del Barrio, early warn­ing and pre­ven­tion are bet­ter alter­na­tives, as a restora­tion will be suc­cess­ful almost exclu­sively on land that has only mildly degraded.

The best approach is to avoid reach­ing extreme lev­els of land degra­da­tion,” he said. For land in use, there­fore under mod­er­ate deser­ti­fi­ca­tion, we have found that max­i­miz­ing the land man­age­ment options is a plau­si­ble approach that is still com­pat­i­ble with mak­ing a profit.”

By max­i­miz­ing man­age­ment options, I mean man­ag­ing any prac­ti­cal land use in such a way that it has the poten­tial to be changed to other land uses,” Del Barrio added. The more land uses become pos­si­ble, the bet­ter.”


In eco­log­i­cal terms, this involves reduc­ing veg­e­ta­tion turnover, increas­ing the bio­mass and let­ting soil organic car­bon accu­mu­late in the top­soil,” he con­tin­ued. In land use terms, this is eas­ily con­verted into man­age­ment cri­te­ria that increase the land value and the farmer’s resilience in the long term.”

While deserts are ecosys­tems that have adapted over time, deser­ti­fi­ca­tion leads to a com­pletely dif­fer­ent envi­ron­ment.

Desertified land is the sim­pli­fied remains of an orig­i­nal land­scape,” Del Varrio said, Overexploitation, soil exhaus­tion and other dri­vers caused a selec­tive pres­sure towards oppor­tunis­tic species,” which reduced bio­di­ver­sity.

Experts believe that cli­mate change is not the sole cause of deser­ti­fi­ca­tion but can worsen the impact of human-dri­ven over­ex­ploita­tion.

The cur­rent prospect of a rel­a­tively quickly warm­ing cli­mate may have a large impact on deser­ti­fi­ca­tion,” Del Barrio said. First, it will act like human-dri­ven exploita­tion to deplete water, net pri­mary pro­duc­tiv­ity and other slow-ren­o­vat­ing nat­ural resources. Second, the speed of change may pre­vent adap­ta­tion in nat­ural ecosys­tems.”

Del Barrio added that while Earth’s cli­mate has con­stantly changed, the rate of this change was much slower, allow­ing ecosys­tems to adapt. However, he wor­ries that these changes are hap­pen­ing too quickly for those sys­tems to adapt.

See Also:WMO Says Next Five Years Will Be Hotter than The Last Five

The issues caused by the rapidly chang­ing cli­mate have also coin­cided with a ten­dency toward inten­sive agri­cul­tural prac­tices, which com­pounds these prob­lems.

In recent times, land uses became increas­ingly inten­sive,” Del Barrio said. Particularly irri­gated land. It has increased enor­mously in Spain, with a 14-per­cent increase between 2010 and 2019. Irrigated land occu­pies approx­i­mately 40,000 square kilo­me­tres and it is respon­si­ble for 80 per­cent of the total water con­sump­tion in the coun­try.”

Assuming that reser­voir capac­ity remains con­stant, and aquifers are deplet­ing grad­u­ally, it fol­lows that the safety mar­gin against droughts, heat­waves and other adverse weather events becomes dan­ger­ously reduced,” he added.

In June, Spain was hit by one of the worst heat­waves in recent years. Paired with sea­sonal fore­casts, the heat­wave prompted the National Meteorological Agency to warn cit­i­zens and farm­ers of a hot sum­mer ahead for most of the coun­try.

The heat wave that has been recorded in Western Europe… has been described by the World Meteorological Organization as unusu­ally early and intense,” José Ángel Núñez Mora, head of Climatology at the Meteorological Centre in Valencia, told Olive Oil Times.

The warm air mass spread from North Africa to Europe at an early date, before the sum­mer sol­stice, bring­ing more typ­i­cal tem­per­a­tures for July or August,” he added.

In the case of Spain, this anom­aly lasted for more than a week, with aver­age tem­per­a­tures reach­ing 10 ºC above the typ­i­cal mid-June val­ues.

Several obser­va­to­ries exceeded 40 °C. Some of them exceeded their his­tor­i­cal record of max­i­mum tem­per­a­ture in the month of June,” Núñez Mora said.

He added that some parts of the coun­try recorded record-high tem­per­a­tures last month, includ­ing San Sebastian in the Basque Country.

Record tem­per­a­tures have also become more com­mon, the mete­o­rol­o­gist warned, with his­toric heat­waves in 2017 and 2019.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been warn­ing for two decades now, that a lin­ear increase in aver­age tem­per­a­ture would lead to an expo­nen­tial increase in very hot days and the fre­quency of heat wave days,” he said. On the other hand, there would be a decrease in the cold and very cold days, and the cold waves will be rarer.”

Núñez Mora said cli­mate data col­lected over the last few years demon­strates that the IPCC’s warn­ings are com­ing to fruition.

What he describes as a not-too-pes­simistic sce­nario” shows warm tem­per­a­ture anom­alies ris­ing from 5 per­cent of days in the last 25 years of the 20th cen­tury to 50 per­cent of days in the last 30 years of the cur­rent cen­tury.

Although the com­po­nents of the Earth sys­tem are very dif­fer­ent in com­po­si­tion, phys­i­cal and chem­i­cal prop­er­ties, struc­ture and behav­ior, all of them are bound by flows of mass, heat and amount of motion, which implies that they are not closed sys­tems, but all sub­sys­tems are open and inter­re­lated,” Núñez Mora said.

So, a change in one com­po­nent, in this case, the atmos­pheric one, nec­es­sar­ily has an impact on oth­ers, par­tic­u­larly bio­di­ver­sity and frag­ile ecosys­tems in our Mediterranean envi­ron­ment,” he con­cluded.

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