The extreme drought that Catalonia is suffering is affecting the daily lives of many people, both from a personal and professional point of view. But it also drastically affects Catalan wildlife, as well as forests, flora, and ecosystems in general. All animals suffer, especially amphibians and fish, which are more dependent on the quantity and quality of water, which has forced Agents Rural to protect fish fauna, for example.
The Director General for Environment and Conservation Policy of the Generalitat, Marc Vilahür, explains that due to the lack of running water in the rivers, the water is of poorer quality and has less oxygen. He explains that mammals, reptiles, and birds are affected by the drought because of the lack of water sources, difficult irrigation, and, in general, because their survival is made more difficult. In the case of amphibians and fish, the impairment leads directly to the loss of their habitat and thus to the death of the animals. “This leads to the genetic extinction of populations and the weakening of populations in Catalonia”, due to the loss of paddy fields, streams, ponds, puddles, and other small water points.
How is all this perceived by fauna and flora in general? The person in charge admits that it will become increasingly difficult for us to see some animals and plants, while others will be more common. As an example, he points out that there are fewer and fewer insects hitting the car’s glass pane.
On the other hand, the director general of Ecosistemes Forestales and Gestió del Medi de la Generalitat, Anna Sanitjas, points out that the forests of Catalonia are also “severely suffering from this summer’s drought”. Many areas have “off-season” trees and forests in a “critical situation” because they are unable to adapt to or withstand the drought. As an example, he cites the area of Osona (Barcelona) or the natural area of Poblet (Tarragona), where pine plantations are dying due to the accumulated drought of the last two years.
According to Vilahür, depending on the nature of the forest, drought affects it in two ways. On the one hand, there are riparian forests in Catalonia that are used to water and need constant contact with it. Due to the drought, these forests die off much more easily due to water shortages, the expert explains, using the example of elms, alders, and willows.
On the other hand, although Mediterranean forests are used to droughts, they are not used to periods of prolonged water shortages or high temperatures. For this reason, at this stage, some lose their leaves and others dry up to death. “The brown patches in the Mediterranean forests this year are a clear example of the consequences of the drought,” says the person in charge.
Looking ahead, Vilahür stresses that rainfall during those years was almost half what it was in previous years and temperatures were “higher than ever before,” bringing us “closer to a climate regime similar to some parts of Morocco, for example.” “. If the trend continues, it is “obvious” for the person responsible that our ecosystems “in many cases are declining” and ecosystems that are more typical of desert areas would emerge: “It is the phenomenon that we suffer from desertification.” “Only by changing the current trend by reducing CO2 can we significantly reverse it,” he adds.
For his part, Sanitjas adds that “many landscapes will change”: in some, for example, we will no longer have Scots pine and instead have holm oak. We can observe the change of ecosystems that cannot live with this climate change in two ways, he points out: “Dramatic and with a significant danger for humans, for example through a forest fire, or we can see a change in the accompanying landscape.” “We create prosperity in the area through forest management,” he defends. The government’s climate protection department has launched a series of measures to “reactivate the forest sector”, he adds.
Regarding the measures for the fauna, Vilahür points out that we face “a global problem of the interrelationship between the human species and the rest of the species on the planet”. There is no “quick and easy solution” to the problem, but instead, we are committed to “rethinking these connections to stay within the safety limits”.
Concern for water-dependent ecosystems
It is mainly the inhabitants of the rivers who notice the severe lack of water. Catalonia has seen a “general decline” in wildlife populations this year, believed to be due to the drought, Vilahür said. “It’s difficult to survive when you don’t have access to a vital element like water,” which is “particularly worrying.” “The biologically richest ecosystems are wetlands or river basins, and with water scarcity, many of the main stores of biodiversity, as well as carbon sinks, lose their function,” he warns.
One example is the fact that the ecological discharge of the Segre River at its headwaters does not “largely” meet the minimum levels set in the Ebro hydrological plan for the period, as recently confirmed by rural officials. Given the impact on the fauna and flora of these ecosystems, one of the proposed actions is to organize fish rescues to take them to other places where their living conditions can be guaranteed.
A fish fauna rescue was carried out this week, relocating more than 300 fish to areas of the same river with more stable currents. During the inspection campaign this spring and summer, more than twenty control measures were carried out, which consisted of measuring the ecological flow and the amount of water that landed in different irrigation communities and hydroelectric power plants.
Daniel Guinart, a biologist at the Montseny Natural Park in the province of Barcelona, believes there could be a “remodeling” of the Montseny forests in the coming decades if water shortages become chronic. A scenario where the holm oak, which withstands the drought much better, replaces the exotic beech and pine trees, which require much wetter habitats, such as those previously found in Montseny. Species such as the Montseny newt, endemic to the Park, suffer from water shortages, and despite efforts under the Life Tritó Montseny project, its population remains in the “UCI”.
Dead fish due to lack of oxygen
The extreme drought has also killed dozens of fish in the lake of Castelló dels Aiguamolls de l’Empordà (Girona). In particular, they led to anoxia, a lack of oxygen in the water that meant the fish could not survive, and created the image of dozens of dead specimens swimming dead in the pond.
Vilahür assumes that such situations will arise again and relies on “basic solutions” instead of “small patches” such as removing dead fish. In his opinion, it is necessary to implement an environmental policy based on reducing CO₂ and recording the emissions with the most pollutants.
Anoxia is the lack of oxygen in water due to a lack of current but also due to high temperatures. It affects all aquatic species, although some resist it better than others. A similar situation happened last July in the Fluvià river that flows through Olot (Girona), where dozens of ducks died, in this case from botulism, but according to experts, it was all due to a lack of oxygen.
Affections in the hunting season
On the other hand, last weekend the hunters of Lleida opened the hunting season with the demi-season in an atypical year marked by drought, noting a decrease in the species to be hunted. The President of the Lleida Caça Federation, Jaume Teixidó, laments that the partridge is “disappearing” and that the drought has also “stopped” the proliferation of rabbits. A positive aspect for agriculture in times of hunting shortage due to the overpopulation of this animal in different parts of the territory.
The Generalitat plans to close September with more than 300,000 rabbits killed over the year. The declaration of a hunting emergency restricts the hunting of foxes, a feature of the period, as they help control the density of these animals as they are a natural predator.
Danger from forest fires
The “complex” situation in which forests are “severely” suffering from the effects of drought is leading to unprecedented deaths. According to Sanitjas, this scenario will result in us removing dead trees to avoid future pests or forest fires. Likewise, “it leads us to work more closely with the country’s forest management.”
“We have a large area of forest, more than half of the country. They need our help, that we take care of them, that we prepare them for drought episodes and changes in climate and meteorology,” argues the person in charge. Sanitjas is committed to achieving this through forest management “by using and caring for it”. He insists that “removing some of these trees doesn’t mean removing them all,” so there are fewer trees but they are more resilient and have the water they need.
However, in addition to the “forest emergency”, the person responsible also points out the “task of the forests”. “For more than 40 years we have turned our backs on the forest, we no longer care for it, and this has resulted in more and more undergrowth and more trees constantly competing for water. It’s like a war over “water, only the strongest resist,” he warns.