Mountain communities, Sierra Nevada

Andalucía, Spain

Credit: Laura Levy

Drier and warmer climate has nearly eliminated perpetual snow from Sierra Nevada’s summits. Local communities report reduced river flows, vanishing springs and wildlife, and increased pests and diseases. Impacts are aggravated by the synergistic effects of land use change due to conservation and agricultural policies, technological changes in primary sectors, and market pressures.

sierra nevada - geoloc map


With a population of over 90,000 people, local communities are endangered actors of the Sierra Nevada UNESCO Biosphere reserve, where the economy is turning towards tourism.

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Traditional livelihoods maintain a network of irrigation channels providing water to humans as well as wild fauna and flora.

Mapa Sierra Nevada

Credit: Laura Levy


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Rainfed olives, almonds, and vineyards. Fruits and vegetables in irrigated lands and homegardens.

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Goats, sheeps and cows. Transhumance, once common, is disappearing.

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Beekeeping yields honey and serves as a pollinator for ecological crops.


Credit: David García-del-Amo



Changes in the climate

Thermomether - Ico

0ºC to 12ºC avg. >2000 masl
0ºC to 25ºC avg. <2000 masl

Since the 1960s, the territory has shown an average increase of 0.1-0.3ºC per decade and longer heat waves.

Water - Ico

200 – 700 mm avg.
*With large seasonal & geographical variations.

Since the 1970s, rainfall and snow extent and persistence have decreased. The relict permafrost is rapidly disappearing.


Changes in the territory

Glass water - Ico

Ditches provide snowmelt, rain and ground water to people, crops, and pastures.

A ski resort and nearby greenhouses place high demands on groundwater for artificial snow and irrigation.

Flooding - Ico

Terraced mountain slopes foster fertile fields, while highlands host communal pastures. Forests supply wood. Local stone is used for irrigation channels and construction.

Depopulation. Declaration of the Natural and National Park and EU farming regulations. Reforestation and loss of local agrobiodiversity. Fertilizers and pesticides cause soil and water pollution.


Communities in Sierra Nevada possess a profound local ecological knowledge of the area, rooted in their traditional water management system. However, climate change, conservation and agricultural policies, and technological changes in the primary sector threaten the foundations of their social-ecological system.

Drivers of change

Bolas Sierra Nevada


sierra nevada - territory abandonment

Credit: David García-del-Amo

Abandonment of the traditional irrigation system
The network of irrigation channels of Sierra Nevada is threatened by reduced water availability due to climate change. The restricted use of large areas of the mountains and the decrease in farming contribute to its abandonment.

sierra nevada - A clash between

Credit: David García-del-Amo

A clash between new policies and traditional livelihoods
Conservation and farming policies further deplete traditional livelihoods impacted by climate change. The adoption of non-native crop varieties and livestock breeds combined with rising temperatures have increased pests and diseases.

sierra nevada -​​ Endangered mountain

Credit: David García-del-Amo

​​Endangered mountain livelihoods and landscapes
Global markets and climate change threaten traditional livelihoods in Sierra Nevada and endanger the iconic snow-capped peaks and green landscape, which are paradoxically a symbol of local identity and tourist attraction.


Adaptations of local communities
In response to reduced water availability and rising temperatures, certain communities in Sierra Nevada have replaced irrigated areas with rainfed crops, introduced new crop varieties and extended growing seasons in the highlands. Furthermore, lack of profitability has reduced the number of herders and livestock, meaning that more resources are available to those who continue with this activity. Despite this, animals cannot survive the summer in the mountains without extra feed and water.

Traditional water management as a backbone for biodiversity conservation
Overuse of water resources by surrounding areas, and certain conservation and agricultural policies have negatively impacted the social-ecological system in Sierra Nevada. The network of irrigation channels, which has shaped the landscape and preserved biodiversity for centuries, now operates on only 700 kilometers out of the original 3,000.

Ensuring the generational renewal
Although traditional mountain agriculture and livestock systems struggle to compete in global markets, they are essential for the sustainability of the social-ecological system in the Sierra Nevada. International and national policies should protect these systems by promoting generational replacement while also promoting their transformation for better economic profitability and social recognition.


Traditional irrigation channels in Sierra Nevada enable the rich biodiversity of this Mediterranean hotspot and the preservation of its symbolic cultural landscape. Local communities’ ecological knowledge grasps the intricacies of the present global change scenario. Thus, it is crucial to engage them in the design and management of adaptation plans aiming at biodiversity conservation and the wellbeing of the population.


The communities of Sierra Nevada are the last holders of an ancestral knowledge preserved for millennia that is essential for their prosperity and that of the wider social-ecological system. The survival of these communities relies on the recognition and economic appreciation of their knowledge and activities, which in turn leads to environmental benefits and positive social-cultural impacts.

Credit: David García-del-Amo


García-del-Amo, D., Calvet-Mir, L., Mortyn, P. G., & Reyes‐García, V. (forthcoming). Network analysis of climate change impacts reported by local communities of Sierra Nevada, Spain. In V. Reyes-García, et al.(eds).  Routledge Handbook of Climate Change Impacts on Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. Chapter 5. Routledge

García-del-Amo, D., Mortyn, P.G. & Reyes-García, V. Local reports of climate change impacts in Sierra Nevada, Spain: sociodemographic and geographical patterns. Reg Environ Change 23, 14 (2023).

García-del-Amo, D., Gálvez-García, C., Iniesta-Arandia, I., Moreno-Ortiz, J., Reyes-García, V. (2022). Local Ecological Knowledge and the Sustainable Co-Management of Sierra Nevada’s Social-Ecological System. In: Zamora, R., Oliva, M. (eds) The Landscape of the Sierra Nevada. (pp 351-367). Springer, Cham.  

Garteizgogeascoa, M., García-del-Amo, D. and Reyes-García, V., 2020. Using proverbs to study local perceptions of climate change: a case study in Sierra Nevada (Spain). Regional Environmental Change, 20, pp.1-12.

Zamora, R., & Oliva, M. (Eds.). (2022). The Landscape of the Sierra Nevada: A Unique Laboratory of Global Processes in Spain. Springer Nature.

Zamora, R., Pérez-Luque, A.J., Bonet, F.J., Barea-Azcón, J.M. and Aspizua, R. (editors). 2016. Global Change Impacts in Sierra Nevada: Challenges for Conservation. Consejería de Medio Ambiente y Ordenación del Territorio. Junta de Andalucía. 208 pp.


Arguments in defense of traditional and historical irrigation systems at

The “Careos” Sowing and Harvesting of Water in Sierra Nevada, Spain on IGME-CSIC YouTube


Conducted by: David García-del-Amo; Laura Levy