Sierra Nevada, Spain – Peasants, shepherds and traditional water management

The pilot testing of the LICCI project has been done in Sierra Nevada, a mountain range in the southeast of Spain where traditional water management practices have played an important role in shaping the landscape. Through the course of history, Sierra Nevada inhabitants have developed an intricate water management system that have made agropastoralism possible in this semi-arid region.  This millenarian water irrigation system consists of numerous water canals and ditches that direct the meltwater from the summits along the slopes of the mountain to irrigate agricultural and pasture fields.

We conducted a total of 240 surveys with farmers and shepherds living in Sierra Nevada. The main local indicators of climate change impacts reported by respondents related to the lack of water and the loss of traditional irrigation systems, although we found important differences in the intensity of the impacts perceived in different areas and across livelihood strategies. Thus, farmer reported that they have had to reduce their cultivated area, change the crop varieties they cultivated, or even abandon some of their crops due to lack of water. Farmers also indicated changes in the planting and harvesting seasons. For example, elderly farmers said that although they continued to use the traditional weather forecasting method, locally known as “cabañuelas”, the current weather unpredictability made this practice less accurate.

On their side, shepherds pointed to a general reduction of the pastures, particularly during summer months. Shepherds also reported impacts on cattle management practices because of water availability, and particularly the increasing need to give more feed and grain to the cattle. Some shepherds also reported bringing water to the top of the mountain with trucks during the driest years when the natural springs and streams are dry and noticed shifts in grazing time.

“Because of the snow, before we had to wait until June to be able to go to the top of the mountain with the herd, now in June we are at the altitude where we used to be in August”.

The finding that there are differences in the intensity of the impacts perceived across neighboring geographical areas and across livelihood strategies supports the idea that climate change impacts are more nuanced than what can be predicted by regional climate models.

Local indicators of climate change impacts in Sierra Nevada. Credit: David García del Amo.