Spain’s swimming pools feel the heat as water supplies dwindle

A man cools himself with water outside a 'caseta' (tent where food and drinks are served) in the annual traditional April Fair in Seville, Spain, April 27, 2023. (PHOTO / AP)

VACARISSES – Many people were drawn to the town of Vacarisses near Barcelona in the 1970s by the suburban dream of homes with large gardens and swimming pools to provide respite during long, hot summers.

But now that lifestyle is under threat as a severe drought forces authorities to reach for increasingly stringent measures to conserve water, including restrictions on filling pools.

Water management is becoming a hot topic as Spain gears up for regional and municipal elections this month and a national vote later in the year, as farmers and other industries vie for an increasingly scarce resource

A law expected to come into force in coming days will bar residents in the northeastern region of Catalonia, including Vacarisses, from refilling empty pools even as an abnormally warm spring suggests the coming summer will be equal in ferocity to last year's, one of the hottest on record. The law will not apply to public pools or hotels.

Water management is becoming a hot topic as Spain gears up for regional and municipal elections this month and a national vote later in the year, as farmers and other industries vie for an increasingly scarce resource.

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Spain has one swimming pool for every 37 residents, and these, too, are now in the spotlight.

In Vacarisses, a scattered town of more than a dozen subdivisions with views of the Montserrat mountain range, residents are bracing for another difficult summer after enduring 16-hour water cuts last year when aquifers ran dry. Mayor Antoni Masana called the pool restrictions a "necessary measure" and stressed that the town had worked to drill new wells.

"Due to climate change, we are seeing less and less rain and water. What we have to do is to rethink, to adapt our model to a (new) reality," Masana said.

Catalonia is one of the most parched regions in Spain, with some reservoirs at just 7 percent of their capacity. This April was the warmest and driest in Spain since records began in 1961, according to the meteorological agency AEMET.

Unfair stigmatisation

Vacarisses has gained regional notoriety for its quantity of pools. With a population of 7,000 and more than 1,500 registered pools, there is one for every five residents, although in urban legend that amount has multiplied.

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"If you go anywhere, people ask you where you are from and when you say Vacarisses, they say: 'Oh, the town with 30,000 pools," said Antonia Leon Garcia, a local resident. "It starts getting annoying."

While her swimming pool has been empty for five years since her children grew up, Garcia, 61, said the town has been stigmatised unfairly for its pools.

Most pools in the town are rarely refilled and, if they are, it is normally with water trucked in from out of town, she said.

Pools are being used as a scapegoat for a lack of coherent water policy in Spain, she said. Authorities should invest in more desalination and purification plants to supplement aquifers and reservoirs, she said.

It is a sentiment shared by Gonzalo Delacamara, director of the IE Centre for Water & Climate Adaptation in Madrid.

While the use of water to fill swimming pools during a drought is irresponsible, the bulk of Spain's water resources are taken by the agriculture sector, accounting for 70 percent of water usage, he said.

According to Delacamara, Spain lacks centralised policies on water management that could provide incentives for farmers to use more expensive desalinated water for irrigation, with decisions on water rates falling on local town councils.

It is a system "that's susceptible to obscene modifications during pre-election periods in which all the mayors promise cheaper water in a context of climate change and drought," he adds.

Building boom

On the island of Mallorca, an average of 17 pools were built a week, or 880 a year, in 2015-2021, according to a study by environmental NGO Terraferida.

Macia Blazquez, geography professor at the Universitat de les Illes Balears, said the proliferation of pools was linked to a property boom in second homes, mainly for northern Europeans.

Seeking to stem the tide, the Balearic government in December limited the construction of new pools in the countryside to one per property and with a water volume cap.

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In Catalonia, the new law made an exception for public pools, or those in hotels or large building complexes, following pressure from local mayors, who argued that public pools act as "climate shelters" in a country that is expected to experience increasingly sweltering summers.

Vacarisses, meanwhile, continues to sell the suburban dream. On an empty plot for sale near Garcia's house, an advertisement, showing a house with a pool, reads: "An ideal place to build your future."