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Sau dam almost dry

Catalonia is experiencing the worst drought in its history.

According to the latest update from the Catalan Water Agency (ACA) in March, the Sau dam in Barcelona's Ossona region is down to 6.6% of capacity, compared with 61.3% a year ago. At this point, the Department of Climate Action, in conjunction with the ACA, ordered the fishing and slaughter of fish in early March, as they were in danger of starving for oxygen, dying and making the water unsafe. More than 3 tonnes of seven different species were removed from the pond, despite the opposition of the local population. This was followed by the transfer of 15 hectometres of water to the Susquedad dam over the following months. This transfer was paralyzed after an analysis showed that the residual water in the reservoir was unfit for consumption due to a high concentration of carbon dioxide.

The Sau dam has experienced several droughts in the course of its existence, but the one of recent months is undoubtedly the worst of all. Because of its lack of water, it has been classified as the zero zone of Catalan reservoirs. The reservoir was built in the 1950s to supply water to Barcelona and other nearby towns. When it was commissioned in 1962, it submerged 12 villages, including Sant Romà de Sau with its medieval church. Over time, the dam's natural setting and the presence of the campanile, which emerges during periods of drought and is used by locals as an indicator of the state of water reserves, have become a popular tourist attraction.

The curious discover a dramatic surreal landscape of a dam in its most precarious state. The water level has caused the entire village of Sant Romà de Sau to reappear after 61 years of immersion. Pedal boats lie near the piers on a completely cracked and mortiferous floor. It is impossible for the owner to remove them due to the instability of the ground. The authorities have closed off the sensitive areas, prohibiting swimming and all water sports activities. The massive influx of tourists during weekends, holidays and the summer period has forced access to the Sau reservoir to be restricted. Mayor Joan Riera of the village of Vilanova de Sau, whose road provides access to the reservoir, was in favor. "We don't have to be happy about this influx of drought tourists, because it's the consequence of a natural disaster affecting our region", said the mayor for the EFE agency.
Most Catalan dams and many rivers are at historically low levels. ACA director Samuel Reyes described the province's drought as "unprecedented" in an interview with Catalan public television. He also highlighted the exceptional nature of the situation, following 30 months without normal rainfall.

The drought and its consequences in Catalonia have never been worse. 6 million Catalans are subject to water restrictions due to the lack of water reserves in 495 municipalities considered to be in an exceptional situation. Reduced harvests due to almost non-existent and insufficient rainfall for several months threaten to drive prices up again. Inflation is likely to set a new record. The coming months will be crucial for agricultural and demographic restrictions if abundant rains do not reappear for the inhabitants who depend on the Sau dam.

Intermittent, torrential rainfall due to a low-pressure system reappeared over the whole of Catalonia for several days in June. Despite the recovery of the Sau dam, which is now at over 24 percent of capacity, Samuel Reyes warned that, according to his data, it would take three to four months of heavy rain "to return to normal". The Generalitat government is maintaining its drought action plan until early October.

Text: Eva Rubio | Photography: Michel Martinez Boulanin