Droughts and their social perception in the mass media (southern Spain)


  • Jose Damian Ruiz Sinoga,

    Corresponding author
    1. Physical Geography Department, University of Málaga, Campus of Teatinos, 29071 Málaga, Spain
    • Physical Geography Department, University of Málaga, Campus of Teatinos, 29071 Málaga, Spain.
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  • Teodoro León Gross

    1. Journalism Department, University of Málaga, Campus of Teatinos, 29071 Málaga, Spain
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In the Mediterranean environment, drought is one of the extreme phenomena that has most direct consequences and complexity. It also has a direct social impact through the mass media, whose analysis, typology and characterization should be a priority in strategies to plan and mitigate effects. The appearance of droughts is slow, their occurrence is often not recognized until human activity and the environment have already been significantly affected, and drought effects persist for a long time after the drought has ended. The spatial distribution of droughts is highly complex, and significant variation in drought conditions is common between different locations. This makes it difficult to identify similar regions, especially in areas of climate transition, where the atmospheric influences are complex. This is the situation in the Iberian Peninsula (particularly the south of the peninsula), which straddles both temperate and sub-tropical climates and in which precipitation is highly variable and spatial variability is substantial. In this study, we analysed rainfall anomalies (Standardized Precipitation Index, SPI) over the last 50 years at four representative meteorological stations in southern Spain, two on the coast (Málaga and Algarrobo) and two at the headwaters of river basins regulated by dams (Antequera and Periana). The aims of the study were to (1) analyse the types of drought, and their frequency and intensity and (2) establish the dynamics and evolution of the social perception of droughts in the context of global change, brought about by the communications media. The results showed the SPI was a useful tool for identifying dry anomalies that may feature in our field of study of meteorological and hydrological drought, depending on its duration. Meteorological drought impact on the eco-geomorphological system is common and has had a particular development since the 1980s. Hydrological droughts are those that have had the greatest effect on water reserves, particularly when they occur in the headwaters of the watershed covered by reservoirs. Their importance has increased since the 1980s. Determination of drought periods and its impact mass media could have extraordinary relevance as a mechanism to establish the levels of awareness on sustainable use of resources. For future research, other socioeconomic and demographic variables should be considered to know the link between drought and water deficit. Copyright © 2012 Royal Meteorological Society

1. Introduction

As the occurrence of extreme climatic conditions increased in the Mediterranean area during the 20th century, awareness of them also grew in society because of media reports. Among the extreme conditions, the analysis, classification and characterization of droughts is of prime importance in the development of planning strategies (Kunkel et al., 1999; Easterling et al., 2000).

Of all extreme climate anomalies, droughts have the direct consequences and are the most complex (Wilhite, 1993), due to the difficulty of identifying their start and end, and because they usually affect wide areas (Cuadrat Prats and Vicente-Serrano, 2005). The onset of drought is usually slow, and its occurrence is often not recognized until human activity and the environment are already affected. In addition, drought effects last for a long time after the drought has ended (Changnon and Easterling, 1989).

In the Mediterranean region, and especially in the south of Spain, significant variation in drought conditions is common among different (even adjacent) areas (Oladipo, 1986; Komuscu, 1999; Nkemdirim and Weber, 1999; Cuadrat Prats and Vicente-Serrano, 2005), which makes it difficult to identify homogeneous areas. It should be noted that, because of compartmentalized relief and extensive coastal urbanization (the Costa del Sol) associated with tourism, the main water resources are regulated by reservoirs that are distant from the areas of demand. This may be an underlying contribution to the dynamics and types of drought.

Palaeo-climatic studies show that droughts in the Iberian Peninsula are very common (Martin-Vide and Barriendos, 1995); and statistics show that droughts cause significant economic losses. Over the last 30 years, the peninsula has been subject to at least five droughts (CRED, 2003). In one of the most recent (1992–1995), agricultural organizations reported that the direct and indirect economic cost is in excess of 3500 million euros. Agricultural insurance companies reported that losses of rain-fed cereals reached about 360 million euros in 1992 and 200 million euros in 1995 (González-Alonso et al., 2000; Cuadrat Prats and Vicente-Serrano, 2005).

Based on its latitude, climate models for the Mediterranean area predict great uncertainty in the availability of water during the 21st century (Houghton et al., 2001; IPCC, 2007), and a considerable reduction in rainfall if the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere continue to rise (Jones and Hulme, 1996). Consequently, the development of drought monitoring, prevention and early warning plans is crucial to the more effective use of resources; and the nature and character of droughts require clearer definition (Wilhite and Svoboda, 2000; Ruiz Sinoga et al., 2010).

While data for the Iberian Peninsula show that the economic importance of rain-fed agriculture has declined in recent decades, Morales et al. (2000) noted that in coastal areas water demand for tourism, and in some areas irrigated agriculture, has increased. Thus, in addition to its relationship to the supply of water resources, drought has a social-economic and environmental dimension that also relates to indicators of climate quality and comfort. Thus, droughts should be defined as a function of their intensity, duration and location.

Knowledge of climate issues can provide high social returns, but requires a state of collective consciousness that involves the communications media, which creates social coherence by constructing the reality involved. In short, community understanding of history, society and nature depends on the media (Luhman, 1996; Innerarity, 2006; Gavin et al., 2011). A corollary is that the media determine society's perceptions of reality, although it is a reality filtered through that media. This highlights the importance of the media agenda and the hierarchy of their contents. The community has distinct expectations of the media, which (beyond entertainment) provides useful information that helps people in their lives and disseminates reliable information that contributes basic security in an insecure world. On this premise, the news media must be evaluated in terms of the degree to which it responds to one or all of these expectations (Coleman et al., 2009; Lyytimäki, 2011; Takahashi, 2011).

As can be seen in the question of the effects of climate change, there is a very direct relationship between media treatment and public opinion (Peters and Heinrichs, 2005). For decades, it has been clear that the general public acquires most of its scientific knowledge through the communications media (Nelkin, 1987). This point is essential because complex knowledge is transformed into media logic; something that often means that the translation of scientific affairs to more or less popular journalistic language gives rise to distrust or even accusations of sensationalism (Ladle, 2004). There is a broad array of research into the ‘agenda-setting function’ and its effects, concerning the tendency to create frameworks that contain the perception of reality (Entman, 1993) and eliminate many-sided reality in order to set the view-point of the mass media. In addition, the persuasiveness of such foci increases, the greater the public is exposed to them. In any case, as Luhmann (1996) says, ‘what we know of our society, even about the world we live in, we know through the communications media. This is not valid solely for our knowledge of society and history, but also for our knowledge of nature’. Thus, as media representation is an important factor in the public's understanding of climate change and its commitment to it, it clearly needs to be examined (Eisensee and Strömberg., 2007; Boykoff, 2008).

This study analysed media coverage of rainfall anomalies (the Standardized Precipitation Index, SPI) that have been studied over the last 50 years at four representative meteorological stations in southern Spain, two on the coast (Málaga and Algarrobo) and two in the headwaters of regulated river basins (Antequera and Periana). The objectives of the study were to (1) analyse the types of drought, and their frequency and intensity; and (2) establish the dynamics and evolution of the social perception of droughts in the context of global change, brought about by the communications media.

2. Study area and data

The study was conducted in the central sector of the coastal Betic Range (Málaga Province, Spain). We analysed the monthly SPI series for the period 1960–2009 from 24 meteorological stations, 11 located inland in regulated hydrographic basins (the Guadalhorce and Vélez rivers) that are the main water supply to the coast, and 13 on the coastal Costa del Sol, which is an area of intense urban development and high demand for water resources.

The data were supplied by the Andalusian Water Agency (Government of Andalusia). The homogeneity of the temporal series was tested using the Anclim software (Štepánek, 2001), according to the guidelines of the Andalusian Agency of Water. The EP test (Easterling and Peterson, 1995) were applied to the data. No reference series were used because of a lack of objective criteria to ensure that they were homogeneous over the experimental period.

Once homogenized the database, the SPSS V15 software was used to make multiple correlations (Pearson's correlation) of monthly rainfall for the entire series from each station in the study. Subsequently, for each of the regulated basins and the coastal area, the most representative stations were selected, including the Antequera (upper Guadalhorce River basin), Málaga (lower coast, Guadalhorce River basin), Periana (upper basin of the Velez River) and Algarrobo (lower coast, Velez River basin) stations. Figure 1 shows the spatial relationships of these and adjacent stations.

Figure 1.

Location of the meteorological stations. Pearson's correlations among the selected and adjacent meteorological stations. This figure is available in colour online at wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/joc

The four selected stations had similar and positive correlations (>0.60) with adjacent stations, indicating that they were highly representative. Table I shows general pluviometric statistics.

Table I. General pluviometric statistics
LocationPluviom. SeriePmedImax (mm/d)Ndays > 100 mm
  (mm/ year)(1960–1969)(1970–1979)(1980–1989)(1990–1999)(2000–2009)  

With this aim, the analysis took as its point of reference in the media the newspaper ‘Sur’, based on two objective criteria: it was the only paper that had been continuously on the market during the period under study, which meant that the comparative sequential analysis would be stable; and in addition, it had been the leading paper in the region since its creation in 1937 (Blanco Castilla, 2005), managing to corner 50% of the flow of information in its area of sales, with proven dominance, through its many stages, in the social communication reports published for over two decades in Spain by several entities (Fundesco, Zeta, APM or Telefónica). This function as the dominant medium gives it too a reference value as the main persuasive influence on public opinion (Díaz Nosty, 1995), highly relevant to this study.

3. Methodology

There are many ways of analysing the intensity, frequency and development of dry anomalies. Numerous indicators have been developed and used in a wide variety of locations, with the aim of determining those places severely affected by climate droughts and supporting plans to restrict their negative impacts (Vicente-Serrano and Cuadrat Prats, 2002). Drought indices worth noting include: the BMDl (Bhalme and Mooley, 1980), the analysis of mobile return periods (Perez Cueva and Escrivá Ortega, 1982), the RAl (Rooy, 1965), the analysis on daily resolution based on dry spells (using the Markov Chain), as the doctoral thesis of Dominguez, (1973) ) or the studies from Conesa Garcia and Martin-Vide (1993), as sequences composed of dry days (Ruiz Sinoga et al., 2011), the Gibbs index (Gibbs, 1975), the Thornthwaite index (Thornthwaite, 1948) and the Palmer index (PDSI; Palmer, 1965), and especially the studies from Martin-Vide and Gomez (1999), or Lana et al. (2008). The latter show as southern Spain, and Malaga area, acquired the character of threshold at different levels.

Among those indicators developed to analyse droughts (Heim, 2002), the most commonly used is the SPI, which was developed by McKee et al. (1993, 1995) to more accurately identify dry and wet periods. Keyantash and Dracup (2002) compared 18 drought indices and concluded that the SPI best defines droughts in terms of spatial distribution, severity, duration and area covered. Although the SPI has only recently been developed, it has been used extensively to study droughts in the United States (Hayes et al., 1999), Europe (Lloyd-Hughes and Saunders, 2002) and the Iberian Peninsula (Cuadrat Prats and Vicente-Serrano, 2005; Poquet et al., 2008a, 2008b).

3.1. Use of the SPI

The SPI was developed to represent abnormally dry and wet periods more accurately than the PDSI. The SPI has several advantages over the PDSI; the PDSI fails to take into account differences in the interval between precipitation and runoff (Karl, 1983), and the classification of its values varies greatly from place to place, which makes spatial comparisons among areas difficult (Weber and Nkemdirim, 1998). Alley (1984) reviewed the limitations of the PDSI, and highlighted that it does not take a probabilistic approach and has a rigid time scale of about 9 months (Vicente-Serrano and Cuadrat Prats, 2002).

In general, research to date shows the benefits of the SPI in identifying dry periods (Guttman, 1998), and numerous studies have analysed the usefulness of the SPI in drought monitoring (Edwards and McKee, 1997; Hayes et al., 1999; McKee et al., 2000; Wu et al., 2001; Vicente-Serrano et al., 2004; Vicente-Serrano and Lopez-Moreno, 2005; Moreira et al., 2008; Lana et al., 2009).

To calculate the SPI, a homogeneous series of monthly rainfall is needed. This can vary between 30 years (Wu et al., 2001) or 50 years (Guttman, 1999) of rainfall records prior to homogenization of the data. Among the various tests for homogenizing temperature and precipitation data (Peterson et al., 1998), the test developed by Alexandersson and Moberg (1997) was used in this study.

Following creation of the homogeneous series from station data, as required for the SPI, the time scales for drought monitoring must be determined.

Droughts in Mediterranean environments exhibit variable frequency on different analysis time scales (Komuscu, 1999). On short time scales, the SPI responds rapidly to a very dry or very wet month, which means that each new month markedly affects the period to which precipitation is added. However, at longer time scales the index responds slowly, indicating fewer but longer lasting drought phenomena. Thus, as one of the advantages of the SPI is that it characterizes dry periods over a broad spectrum of time (Edwards and McKee, 1997), the index was analysed at scales of 3, 6, 12, 24 and 48 months to distinguish periods ranging from meteorological to hydrological droughts.

Scales less than 12 months are indicative of meteorological and short-term drought, while over 24 months they correspond to a long-term drought index, with direct incidence on the hydrological system (Edwards, 2001). The socioeconomic, environmental and hydrological consequences of drought depend on its duration and intensity, which underlines the relevance of using differing time scales. Soil humidity is very sensitive to short dry periods (time scales < 6 months), which result in less water available for vegetation. This has direct environmental (drying of biomass and increased risk of forest fire) and agricultural (reduced harvests) consequences. However, the water resources available in a particular area can only be determined on the basis of long time scales, as dams act as reservoirs by accumulating water.

Having obtained SPI values, McKee et al. (1993) established a classification to identify the severity of each dry period identified. In this study, we classified drought severity in three categories: moderate (SPI = − 1 to − 1.49), severe (SPI = − 1.50 to − 1.99) and extreme (SPI≤− 2). This classification was extremely useful for defining areas that had droughts of differing degree at various time scales.

3.2. Degree of social sensitivity: analysis of media content

As no historical series of socio-metric analyses of reality are available, social sensitivity was explored through the perspective of the communications media. Content analysis seems to be the best approach to research of this kind (Krippendorff and Bock, 2008, Navarro and Díaz, 1995, Neuendorf, 2002, Piñuel, 2002, Riffe et al., 2005, Weber, 1994, Wimmer, 2005). Krippendorff (2002) reported that it enables reproducible and valid inferences to be drawn from data in a given context, and Bardin (1966) noted that it permits the use of valid, objective indicators for inferring knowledge. The content analysis period paralleled that established for the SPI, which reinforces its choice as the best tool for compiling, processing and evaluating large amounts of information (Sánchez Aranda, 2005) and describing the components of media messages (Igartua, 2006).

The analysis is broken down into five categories for the proper evaluation of the response of information to reality:

  • 1.-Surface area: Double page, full page, 1/2 page, ½ page, 1/8 page, short
  • 2.-Genre: News, Report/chronicle, Editorial, Article, Interview
  • 3.-Source:
    • A.Personal. Documents
    • B.Institutions. Specialist. Witness.
  • 4.-Tone: Dramatic, Critical, Analytical, Objective, Toning down drama.
  • 5.-Theme: Influence on tourism. Damage to cattle. Cyclical drought. Damage to the agricultural sector. Human supply. Accusations/Conflicts between Government bodies. Rogations of the church. Water resources. Water infrastructures. Water transfers. Climate studies. Capture, boring, prospecting. Awareness-raising campaigns/Advice on saving. Electrical supply. Loans/Help due to adverse weather. Measures taken by Government bodies. Consequences for nature (fauna–flora). Risk of fires. Consequences for agriculture and livestock. Restrictions. Desertification. Budgets/Economic provision. Quality of water. Personal views. Climate change.

The breadth of the sample, with field work coverage extending over five decades in which the SPI was applied, makes the conclusions extremely reliable. The range of categories enables valid analyses to be inferred:

Volume: Calculation of the number of published articles related to drought, to evaluate the degree of attention and prominence given to the theme in the media.

Length: Beyond the breadth of coverage inferred by the preceding category, this field implies the depth of coverage based on the length of articles. This serves to distinguish differences in the construction of reality.

Genre: This category enables the complexity of the journalism to be assessed, beyond its frequency and depth. To achieve this, the type of article is assessed, from basic news items that are restricted to an explanatory description with little detail, to ‘in-depth reporting’, comprising analytical articles or those presenting considered views.

Sources: This category is central to analysis of press coverage in that it extends beyond volume, depth and complexity to the level of skill reflected in the articles. The value of sources is measured in terms of quantity and quality, as a larger number of sources provides more dialectical content, and greater quality refines the content.

Tone: This is a more subjective category, but reflects the reality that news items include tone and drama (McCombs, 1992), which need to be explored.

Theme: Drought involves a broad range of themes that modulate greatly public opinion of it. Thus, this analysis is decisive to finding out whether these are readings involving economic or ecological questions, infrastructure or service themes.

4. Results and discussion

4.1. Types of drought

The results obtained for the various SPIs analysed (SPI3, SPI6, SPI12, SPI24, SPI48) and from the four stations in the study were analysed using the Spearman's Rho correlation coefficient; this statistic is reported to be better suited to analysis of series of nonparametric data (Moreira et al., 2006; Cancelliere et al., 2007; Naresh Kumar et al., 2009).

Although in all cases, there was high statistical significance (0.01 bilateral level) and close correlation (Table II) in terms of general trends, particular relationships are described below.

  • 1.For both the coastal and inland stations for any SPI, the Spearman's Rho coefficient was approximately 0.8, indicating close correlation within the database.
  • 2.The Rho coefficients for the Velez River basin (Periana-Algarrobo axis) were higher than those for the Guadalhorce River basin (Antequera-Málaga axis) because the sub-Betic Range has a screening effect on air masses. For severe droughts (SPI24 and SPI48), the Rho coefficients almost completely correlated (0.920 and 0.939) between stations of the eastern axis (Periana-Algarrobo), whereas for the stations of the western axis (Antequera-Málaga) the correlations were much weaker.
  • 3.The amount of dry months per decade for the different SPI analysed shows several situations. (1) During the 1960s and 1970s, the number of dry months per decade did not exceed 60 in any case; there was a tendency for the number to increase in the lowest indices (SPI3 and SPI6), and to decrease in the remainder. (2) During the 1980s and 1990s, the number of dry months per decade always exceeded 80. Of particular significance was the observation that in the 1980s the number of months involved for the SPI48 was 175 (34 in Málaga, 54 in Antequera, 39 in Algarrobo and 48 in Periana). (3) In the most recent decade, the number of months with drought fell for all indices, but was always greater than 40. Of particular significance was that the index for more long-lasting droughts (SPI24) exceeded 80 months. These results are consistent with previous studies of droughts under Mediterranean conditions (Maheras et al., 1999; Bordi et al., 2001a, 2001b; Lana et al., 2001; Vicente-Serrano, 2006a, 2006b).
  • 4.Analysis of the duration of droughts (Figure 2) presented a dual scenario. (1) Even within the general trend of increase in the 1980s and 1990s the number of dry months included in short-term droughts (<6 months) fitted well at all stations. This refers to the frequent moderate droughts that are characteristic of the Mediterranean climate, as other studies have also identified (Maheras et al., 1999; Sirdaş and Şen, 2001; Vicente-Serrano, 2006a, 2006b). (2) The longer lasting droughts (SPI24 and SPI48) were distributed more heterogeneously. These were hydrological droughts, which affect both the ecosystem (loss of biomass and biodiversity, degradation of soils, increased water erosion processes) and water resources (reduced soil filtration capacity, recharge of aquifers and underground water quality), as has been noted previously (Martinez-Murillo and Ruiz Sinoga, 2007; Ruiz Sinoga and Martinez-Murillo, 2009a, 2009b). Even within this kind of drought, dual behaviour was evident: for SPI24 the number of dry months usually reached a maximum in the 1990s, but at Málaga this occurred in the 1980s. For SPI48, the maximum number of dry months at all stations occurred in the 1980s, although at Antequera there was another increase in the period 2000–2009. This can be explained by the number of different dry periods.
  • 5.Assessment of the evolution of the number of dry periods (periods of more than three consecutive dry months) showed that (Figure 3): (1) the greatest number of dry periods was in the 1980s (except at Antequera, where the greatest number occurred in the 1990s), and the highest values occurred at the eastern stations (19 at Periana, 15 at Algarrobo); (2) in the 1990s the numbers remained high (>14), except at Málaga; (3) in the period 2000–2009 the numbers declined but remained higher than in the 1960s and 1970s, except at Antequera, where the number approached that in the 1980s (11 dry periods). Similar variability in Mediterranean areas has been reported previously (Maheras et al., 1999; Lana et al., 2001; Vicente-Serrano et al., 2004; Vicente-Serrano and Lopez-Moreno, 2005; Vicente-Serrano, 2006a, 2006b).
Figure 2.

Number of dry months/SPI at the study stations (1960–2009). This figure is available in colour online at wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/joc

Figure 3.

Dry periods (sum) from 1960 to 2009. This figure is available in colour online at wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/joc

Table II. Spearman's Rho correlation for the various SPIs
  • **

    Statistical significance at 0.01 bilateral level.


The differences found indicate that two kinds of droughts occurred. The first were those lasting less than 12 months (termed meteorological droughts); these were more common and had less impact, and can be understood in terms of the characteristic variability of Mediterranean regions. The second were those lasting more than 12 months (termed hydrological droughts), which had much more drastic consequences for both the balance of soil-water-plant resources and the population.

4.2. Dry periods

A time period of < 12 months, which is consistent with previous findings (Lana et al., 2001; Cuadrat Prats and Vicente-Serrano, 2005; Loukas et al., 2008), reflects the wetness conditions for vegetation, as the needs of vegetation for water occur on short time scales. During droughts, where water deficits affect harvests and natural vegetation, high rainfall in a particular month can overcome the deficit and enable vegetation to grow normally, factor which the indicator collects very well. However, such precipitation does not signal the end of a hydrological drought, which is longer lasting and related to the water reserves available (Morales et al., 2000; Naresh Kumar et al., 2009; Saravi et al., 2009).

There was spatial and temporal variability in the occurrence of these dry periods (Figure 4), which is highly characteristic of Mediterranean ecosystems. A distinction must be made between the sub-Betic axis (Antequera-Málaga), which may be affected by the climatic conditions in the Guadalquivir River basin, and the Axarquiense sector (Periana-Algarrobo), which is protected by mountains from the effects of air masses from the north. Poquet et al. (2008a, 2008b) analysed dry periods in Catalonia and made similar findings. In addition, there was some consistency between dry spells at the headwater and coastal stations. However:

  • 1.Within the study period, there were several dry spells in the sub-Betic sector during the 1960s (one in Málaga and three in Antequera), but the first to occur in the Axarquiense sector was in 1974. In total, there were nine extreme episodes in Antequera, six in Málaga, four in Periana and seven in Algarrobo. Similar findings were reported by Ruiz Sinoga et al. (2010) for southern Spain, by Poquet et al. (2008a, 2008b) for Catalonia, and by Vicente-Serrano and Lopez-Moreno (2005) in inland Spain.
  • 2.Consistent with the findings of Vicente-Serrano (2006a, 2006b), the droughts for 1982–1983 and 1994–1995 were particularly significant because of their intensity, which was more marked on the coast than at inland sites during both periods.
  • 3.Some episodes varied greatly in their distribution. Thus, in 1998–1999 there was an extreme episode in Antequera that also severely affected Periana and Algarrobo, but it had no effect at Málaga (Vicente-Serrano, 2006a, 2006b).
  • 4.During the last decade, no meteorological droughts occurred at Málaga, whereas several episodes of differing lengths affected the headwaters of the supply basins (2004–2006 in Antequera, and during summer 2005 in the Axarquiense sector), as reported by Ruiz Sinoga et al. (2010) in their analysis of rainfall trends in southern Spain.
  • 5.Within this kind of drought, two time scales with different situations need to be distinguished:
    • The number of extreme droughts was always greater for the SPI6 than the SPI3; the exception was at Antequera, probably because of its continental location.

    • The number of severe droughts was greater for the SPI3 than the SPI6; the exception was at Antequera, where the soils (and thus the vegetation) are subject to greater hydrological stress.

    • The number of moderate droughts on the sub-Betic axis was greater for the SPI3 (greater seasonality), whereas in the Axarquiense sector it was greater for the SPI6 (greater stability).

Figure 4.

Dry periods (1960–2009): (a) Antequera, (b) Málaga, (c) Periana, (d) Algarrobo

In summary, meteorological droughts are indicators of the hydric conditions of the eco-geomorphological system, as previously shown in similar contexts by Martinez-Murillo and Ruiz Sinoga (2007). Within the space-time variability that affects the Mediterranean climate, extreme meteorological droughts have occurred frequently, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s (Maheras et al., 1999; Vicente-Serrano et al., 2004; Vicente-Serrano and Lopez-Moreno, 2005). In the period 2000–2009, some episodes occurred in the headwaters of the basin and on the east coast without affecting the Málaga station, which is in the area that has the greatest concentration of people.

4.3. Hydrological droughts

To identify the hydrological droughts, calculation of the SPI on a time scale longer than 12 months was more useful. On this scale, droughts were less common but longer lasting, as were wet periods. Given that the SPI indicates humid conditions, whether annual or inter-annual, the scale can be used to monitor water resources at the level of the entire basin (Vicente-Serrano and Cuadrat, 2002; Shukla and Wood, 2008). Dry periods were not interrupted as suddenly as in a meteorological drought, which indicates that rainfall in excess of normal levels has to occur over consecutive months to recover the reserves. A similar situation applies to the occurrence of droughts. Negative SPI values occur when there is a long period of monthly deficits, and the greater the cumulative deficit, the more intense the drought and (as a general rule) the longer it lasts (Bordi et al., 2001a, 2001b; Vicente-Serrano and Cuadrat, 2002; Patel et al., 2007). At the 48 month time scale, dry periods lasted longer, but were less frequent.

The analysis of the temporal evolution of hydrological drought (Figure 5) shows:

  • 1.These droughts become important only after the 1980s, lasting longer in the upper catchment areas regulated by dams and with increased intensity in the eastern observatories (Cuadrat Prats and Vicente-Serrano, 2005; Poquet et al., 2008a, 2008b; Lana et al., 2009; Ruiz Sinoga et al. 2010).
  • 2.The drought of 2004–2006, which occurred in the most populated area (Málaga), was of minor significance. The most consistent hydrological drought was recorded at the Antequera station, which is located on the largest reservoir; this drought lasted almost 3 years (November 2004 to August 2007).
  • 3.The number of months in which moderate hydrological drought was detected was always higher than the number involving droughts of severe and extreme intensity. Months were common in the 1980s and 1990s with the SPI12, but were only detected from the 1990s onwards with the SPI24. With the SPI48 the occurrence of moderate hydrological droughts was uneven; at Antequera and Málaga they were more common in the 1980s and in the period 2000–2009, while at Algarrobo and Periana they were more common in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • 4.Months affected by severe hydrological drought were evident from the 1980s onwards. These were less common, but had a space-time distribution similar to that listed in 3 above. Based on the SPI12, such droughts were important in Algarrobo and Periana in the 1980s and 1990s, but in Málaga were only important in the 1980s. Based on the SPI24, months of severe drought were common at all stations during the 1990s, at Málaga in the 1980s and at Antequera in the period 2000–2009. Based on the SPI48, months of severe hydrological drought were recorded at all stations in the 1980s and 1990s except at Antequera, where they were only recorded in the 1980s.
  • 5.Analysis of the monthly occurrence of extreme hydrological droughts, particularly at all stations in the 1990s, showed that these were less frequent but longer lasting. This is similar to findings previously reported for Valencia (Vicente-Serrano et al., 2004) and the Spanish Mediterranean (Vicente-Serrano, 2006a, 2006b). These droughts had worse consequences in terms of hydrology and water reserves. They have been important since the 1980s, lasting longer at stations in basin headwaters and being more intense in the eastern stations. It is significant that there was little or no impact of the 2004–2006 drought at Málaga, where the authorities activated various drought readiness plans, whereas it had a marked impact at Antequera, in the headwaters of the regulated basin (CMA, 2007).
Figure 5.

Hydrological droughts in the period 1960–2009: (a) Antequera, (b) Málaga, (c) Periana, (d) Algarrobo

In summary, the analysis of dry periods and hydrological droughts at four representative stations in the province of Málaga showed that their distribution was irregular in time and space. Of the dry anomalies counted, only on four occasions (1975, 1983, 1985, 1999) were all of the stations in the study area affected; on 6 occasions 3 stations were affected, on 13 occasions 2 stations were affected, and on 12 occasions only 1 station was affected.

In addition to the well-known characteristics of Mediterranean droughts on the Spanish coast (Maheras et al., 1999; Vicente-Serrano et al., 2004; Cuadrat Prats and Vicente-Serrano, 2005; Vicente-Serrano and Lopez-Moreno, 2005; Poquet et al., 2008a, 2008b), we identified a marked change commencing in the 1980s.

The cumulative evolution of the number of dry months (Figure 6) shows a linear or quasi-linear trend to the beginning of the 1980s. However, this underwent a considerable change, particularly influenced by changes recorded at the inland stations.

Figure 6.

Cumulative evolution of dry months (1960–2009): (a) Antequera, (b) Málaga, (c) Periana, (d) Algarrobo. This figure is available in colour online at wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/joc

4.4. Social perception of droughts in the mass media

As can be seen in Figure 7, which establishes the correlation between the evolution of the drought and the media response, it must be stated that there is no significant divorce between reality and the information construct, even though its evolution tells us that it is during the last two decades when the notorious weakness of the attitude of the newspaper to match its journalistic intensity to the real dimension of the phenomenon and its impact on society has been corrected.

Figure 7.

Comparative cumulative evolution of dry months and news from drought (1960–2009)

Analysis of reports in the media shows that social perceptions were generally in line with the scientific analysis of drought occurrence. It reached the conclusion that the transfer to society of prominent events relating to drought situations was broadly coherent.

Volume: The number of press reports devoted to droughts largely paralleled the SPI. The main droughts classified by the SPI48 occurred in the 1990s at all stations, although there were also marked peaks of occurrence in the preceding decade, especially at inland stations (Antequera and Periana), and in the first decade of the 21st century. The space dedicated to these issues in the press was in line with these data, and more than 50% of these articles in the study reference newspaper were published in the 1990s, which was consistent with the major drought that occurred in that period.

Thus, in 1995 alone the figure of 321 units published in the paper was reached, a considerable amount, which moreover accounts for a third of all units in the twenty-seven years that the research has covered. 1995, with the drought very pronounced, reflects uncommon behaviour, though, as the 1994 figure was 54 and the 1996 one, 23. Only 10 years later, with 91 items in 2005, was an exceptional peak seen again.

In periods of little drought occurrence, such as the 1960s, the volume of press articles was less than 1%, and in the 1970s was less than 3% (including the field work reported). The 1980s drought received extensive press coverage (almost 14%), and introduced a capacity for an information response that was coherent with reality. In addition, specialization in the question reached the paper, creating more intensive response mechanisms, and the press reports were more detailed in content (or contained more technical information), generating more public concern about the issue. This was evident in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, when four out of every five press reports in dry years were made.

Since 1992, there have been only 3 years when fewer than 20 units were published about the drought; till then, this limit was only exceeded in 2 of the 14 years evaluated.

Length: This variable concerns the depth of the media coverage, based on article length, and indicates the extent to which attention to the drought issue exceeded basic press coverage (Table III). Two-thirds of the articles based on work in the field ranged from 0.25 to 0.75 pages in length. Basic articles (0.125 pages or brief articles < 100 words) only just add up to a greater volume than the major full-page or double-page articles. Although the paper was smaller in the 1960s and 1970s than in later decades, it is clear that in these decades there were few high-profile articles of the kind that became common from the 1980s onwards.

Table III. Decadal evolution of the extent of press reports on droughts
Short text5.418.1132.4343.2410.8137
1/8 2.2115.4466.9115.44136

This is consistent with the onset of major droughts, and also with an increasingly dynamic press commitment. In the 1970s, concretely 1974 and 1975, the first full-page and double-page reports appeared, even though shorter texts still accounted for more significant coverage. In the 1980s, the balance was unequal, since in 1981 and 1983 large-size pieces coincide with brief ones, though in the second half of this decade the standard size settled at between a one-fourth and three-fourth page. In the 1990s, the major articles on drought amounted to 13% of all articles, but in the first decade of the 21st century one in every five (20%) double-page articles concerned drought. In addition, during this decade variety of coverage became established, covering all kinds of articles, with a greater desire for balance.

Genre: This indicator reflects the complexity of press treatment (beyond extent and depth) measured as a function of the article type, from basic news items typically without context and restricted to simple descriptions of a particular event, to in-depth reporting or analysis (Table IV). The results point again in the direction of the data already cited in the above fields.

Table IV. Decadal evolution of type of press reporting on droughts

It can be asserted that three-fourth of texts can be attributed to the genre of ‘news item’, that is an information text, which is a category that includes articles ranging from text of a few lines to major or documentary-type reports. There were more of these than interpretative or opinion articles, as is usual in the structure of the media. Major reports comprised 15% of articles in the 1980s, coinciding with an expansion of coverage of drought issues (Table IV). Before then, in the 1960s and 1970s, there were few large opinion pieces and these were mostly written by uncritical specialists. However, in the 1980s, the press began to provide more informed coverage. In the 1990s, in addition to the major reports noted above, there was an increase in editorials on the issue, indicating it had become central to the concerns of the newspaper, and above all signed articles. In the early years of the 21st century major reports comprised 20% of articles, and journalists began interviewing specialists as a way of probing the issue of droughts.

In fact, between 2001 and 2007, cover through reports and chronicles ranged between 20 and 35%, a sustained figure that rules out any interpretation that it was chance. In fact, except for opinion articles, it was found that it was typical to use the whole range of journalistic categories, making the coverage richer and more elaborate. Thus, while between 1992 and 1996 news still accounted for between 70 and 85% of cover, by the end of the 1990s this had fallen to around a regular 60%, due to greater use of other genres.

Sources: This category assesses the level of skill reflected in the articles, and is central to the analysis of press coverage as it reflects quantity and quality; a larger number of sources provides more dialectical content, and high-quality sources reflect expert opinion (Table V). The result in this field does betray a considerable weakness, although it must be noted that this is a structural weakness of Spanish journalism, here reflected in the reporting of droughts.

Table V. Decadal evolution of sources of press reports on droughts

Quantity: The articles in the 1960s and 1970s were in general provided by a single source. There was no attempt to contrast or confirm information, but rather to present a single opinion, almost always an official one. This has been maintained to a large extent; in the 1980s the volume of coverage increased but the number of sources (1.15 per article) did not, and in the 1990s there were 1.2 sources per article, and in the period 2000–2009 there were 1.1 sources per article.

Quality: In the 1980s, the use of specialist sources became key to ensuring that coverage was competent. A specialist source was included in 15% of articles in the 1980s; this rose to 20% in the 1990s but declined again to 15% at the beginning of the 21st century. Although the specialist input was significant, it is clear that institutional sources dominated the responses to drought: 60% in the 1980s, 70% in the 1990s and approximately 80% in the period 2000–2009. The reduction in specialist sources may be related to the tendency to reduce journalism costs, with a reduction in intellectual capital that becomes clear in the professionalism employed and its practical results. Thus, there has been no repetition of the near 55% for specialist sources on droughts in 1986, 40% in 1989, or even of around 33% in 1992–1995, with brief exceptions in 1999 and 2000. This is a worrying trend, in that it reflects press treatment that is increasingly distant from social reality. In fact, personal testimonies or voices, which are more prominent in the reporting of other issues (thus reflecting the more populist style of journalism), are generally lacking in the reporting of droughts. And this institutional character, which reaches levels of 85% of sources in 2005 or 84% in 2007, is also a factor that makes the reader less interested (Díaz Nosty, 1996), thus contradicting the theoretical aim of increasing society's sensitivity to the issue.

Tone: This category, which requires subjective assessment, tackled the question of how drought coverage was focused, as limiting assessment to the number of texts would have ignored the fact that news transmits meaning about reality.

The presence of tone can be seen in the fact that an objective reporting style was found in a low proportion of news items from the 1960s and 1970s, barely reached 40% in the news items in the 1980s, was less than 35% in the 1990s, and exceeded 45% in the period 2000–2009 (Table VI). As there were more information articles than those with discourse in an informative tone, this suggests intention in drought reporting. Nevertheless, a complementary mix of information and explanatory approaches, containing both educational and analytical tones, was already prevalent by the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975, and subsequently became even more marked. Since the 1980s, this style accounted for a third of all articles, and then dropped to 23% in the 1990s only to recover to 29% in the 2000s. Concretely, in the 1980s significant levels of this analytical treatment were reached: 62% in 1988, 55% in 1986 or 46.9% in 1983. These are very considerable indicators that are not repeated subsequently, since in the 1990s, only in 1993 and 1996 did the analytical texts reach around 40%, with the other years between 10 and 25%. However, in recent years, between 2005 and 2007, the figure has risen again to reach 40%. In contrast, dramatic tones have increased (13–15%) in recent decades. In fact, the ‘dedramatizing’ tone of the 1980s and the 21st century is similar to the ‘dramatic’ tone. This was not so in the 1990s, even though this was when drought was most widespread and texts with a markedly ‘critical’ tone reached 30%, which was double that in the preceding and subsequent decades.

Table VI. Decadal evolution of tone of press reports on droughts

Themes: The agenda of themes on drought during these five decades is headed up by various preponderant lines: ‘measures adopted by Government bodies’ (105 items), ‘water resources’ (101), ‘damage to the agricultural sector’ (90), ‘human supply’ (89), followed by ‘climate study’ (80) and ‘water infrastructure’ (79). These references predominate, as can be seen in Table VII, over others of medium-high incidence, such as ‘restrictions [in supply]’ (65), ‘capture, boring and prospecting’ (56), ‘human supply’ (53) and ‘conflicts between government bodies’ (51). In short, associations for grouping the dominant characteristics can be established: ‘resources, supply and restrictions’ (101 + 89 + 53), ‘reactions of Government bodies’ (105 + 51), ‘infrastructure and prospecting’ (79 + 56) and, to a lesser extent, ‘effects on agriculture’ and ‘climate study’.

Table VII. Theme referred in the different droughts
  1. Values in bold are the most representatives values per theme.

Dry months2616882484938267
Influence on tourism    15 015
Damage to livestock 1110 03
Cyclical drought 1  0 01
Damage to agriculture4511737151190
Human supply13 1640171289
Accusations/conflicts between administrations   13116351
Players of the church   10 01
Water resources 3125262620101
Water infrastructure   438221579
Water transfers    274637
Climatology effects1631323142080
Deposits, polls and water surveys. 215382856
Awareness campaigns/saving tips   3951532
Power supply  1 0 01
Bank loans/grants for adverse weather  4 73216
Measures taken by the authorities 127511331105
Environmental consequences  1475118
Fire risk   13 26
Consequences for agriculture and livestock 14511113
Water restrictions   8524165
Desertification   10 12
Budget  1 168025
Personal opinion   1207432
Water quality    73111
Climate change    0 22
General    45 045

It should be noted that, apart from the ‘climate study’ reference, which refers to predictions and the evolution of the behaviour of the climate, there are very few pieces on absolutely central questions, such as ‘desertification’ (2 items), ‘climate change’ (2) or ‘cyclical drought’ (1). Taken together, this group of themes accounts for a scant 0.5% of the total. Desertification and climate change are references, above all, from the first decade of the 21st century, but their presence is even so very moderate, accounting for 1.9% of the references recorded in the 2004–2007 period, when there were 38 dry months.

It is relevant to note the steady enlarging of themes. In recent decades, with the considerable increase in newspapers' response to the general question of drought, there has been a growing variety of specific orientations, focuses and proposals, which define a more complex perception of the systemic character of the phenomenon than in the 1960s and 1970s, when coverage was limited to flatter interpretations, only with significance for their effects on agriculture.

Distant from 1960s and 1970s data and even reports from the first part of the 1980s, when scant incidence of information coincided with little plurality of focus, new orientations arose in the second half of the 1980s, during this long period of 82 dry months. These posed an agenda with significant new orientations coming to the fore: water infrastructure, human supply and climate studies, adding up to 54 items, more than half the references of the period. Nevertheless, these are still elementary approaches that refer to questions such as the supply service, its guarantees and prospects. It is only in the 1990s, with the exponential development of newspaper coverage, that the agenda is reoriented to include social and economic themes of a broader nature, such as transfers of water or drought's effects on tourism, the region's main industry.

Nevertheless, there is a definite focusing of the main lines of argument, which in the first decade of the 21st century again become more prominent until 64.7% of the agenda can be classified under only five labels: measures taken by government bodies, climate studies, water resources, water infrastructure and awareness-raising campaigns. The latter, with 15 items, accounted for 9.6% of the total in this period, an appreciable amount, in contrast with the great droughts of the 1990s, when there were just 9 and 5 items, respectively, accounting for 1.8 and 3% in the 1992–1996 and 1998–2002 cycles.

5. Conclusions

  • 1.Under Mediterranean conditions, which include broad space–time variability in rainfall, the SPI is a useful tool for analysing dry anomalies, particularly in long time series. Numerous dry spells and some hydrological droughts were identified in the last 50 years.
  • 2.Meteorological droughts are associated with a short-term water deficit and provide information on the water conditions of the eco-geomorphological system. Extreme droughts are common, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s. In the last decade, some extremely dry-period episodes were recorded in the headwaters and on the east coast, but were not evident at the Málaga station, in the area with the greatest concentration of people.
  • 3.Hydrological droughts were less common, but had worse consequences in terms of water reserves. They have increased in importance since the 1980s, last longer at the stations in the headwaters of the basins, and have been more intense at the eastern stations. It is significant that the 2004–2006 drought had little or no impact at the Málaga station, but had a significant impact at Antequera, in the headwaters of the regulated basin.
  • 4.There has been no distortion of the social perception of drought in the media. Press coverage has been highly consistent with the SPI. The amount of coverage was very low in the 1960s and 1970s, despite its relevance to the period's political debate. Coverage became prominent in the press because of the droughts in the 1980s and 1990s, when it reached its maximum intensity.
  • 5.During the final decades of the 20th century, which coincided with major droughts, the use of specialist sources in press coverage of droughts became more common. This shows objective interest and an effort to modulate social perception using expert opinion. In the last decade of the 20th century, major articles on drought comprised almost 15% of the coverage, and this rose to 20% in the first decade of the 21st century. This involved the use of more demanding article styles, particularly major reports.
  • 6.The major themes transmitted to public opinion do not lack a public or even sequential logic: resources, supply and restrictions; reactions of Government bodies; and infrastructure and prospecting. The agenda set was enlarged after the great droughts of the 1990s to include greater complexity on social and economic affairs. However, it was only in the 21st century that the label ‘awareness-raising campaigns’ began to be significant, bordering on 10% of items, while in the 1990s this question was at 1.5–3%.
  • 7.Determination of drought periods and its impact mass media could have extraordinary relevance as a mechanism to establish the levels of awareness on sustainable use of resources. For future research, other socioeconomic and demographic variables should be considered to know the link between drought and water deficit.


This study has been funded by the project CGL2010-21425-C02-01 and CSO2010-19725 within the National Plan for Research of the Ministry of Science and Innovation call for 2010.