200 villages at risk of depopulation

A study by the UdL highlights the delicate situation in which many small towns find themselves, despite the fact that covid has encouraged many families to settle in rural areas

3 min

BarcelonaIn Catalonia there are 947 municipalities. Almost a quarter were at risk of depopulation before covid, according to a study by geographers from the University of Lleida, Ignasi Aldomà and Josep Ramon Mòdol. The arrival of the pandemic has been able to vary minimally the situation in some geographical areas, but the danger of loss of inhabitants remains high especially in the Pyrenees and its foothills in Lleida, and then a whole line that goes through the centre of Catalonia diagonally, ranging from the Solsonès through La Noguera, Urgell, Garrigues, southern Segrià, Conca de Barberà, Priorat and Terra Alta. "It is an inland area that concentrates small municipalities with poor communications", summarises Aldomà. It is, for the most part, villages with under 500 inhabitants with a very old population, an undiversified economic activity -prevalence of the agricultural sector- and a very low level of services.

Lleida is the most affected province: 89 of its 231 municipalities are in a critical situation of depopulation according to the study, which has analysed different indicators since 2000. For this reason, the Provincial Council applied last year for the first time positive discrimination criteria for these municipalities that are at risk, providing an extra €6.5m, and investing more money in these villages than they would be allotted due to their size.

Covid's effect on rural areas

At the turn of the century, in the years of economic boom, rural areas experienced some recovery, thanks mainly to "the increase in construction", and the arrival of new population, especially from abroad, since the generational renewal is marked by young immigrants of foreign origin. With the 2008 crisis it was back to square one, with "deterioration, recession and rural flight". Covid could change this trend, but Aldomà warns it is very difficult to '"reverse" and change "demographic pyramids".

However, the effect of covid has been noticed in some of these 200 populations at risk of depopulation. In Riu de Cerdanya two families have arrived, one of them with a minor. In Gallifa, in Vallès Occidental, a dozen people who already had second homes there have settled, mostly retirees, but also a family with two children. Similar to what has happened in Castell de l'Areny, in Berguedà, with 9 more residents, two of whom are minors. In Granyena de les Garrigues, almost twenty in two years, mostly elderly people, but also a family with two children. On the other hand, in Savallà del Comtat, in Conca de Barberà, there have been no newcomers.

The arrival of young people is essential to reverse the situation, since these municipalities live on a population "that has income from pensions, which allow them to get by, but over the next 20 years, the prospects are negative," argues Aldomà. And this is because, he says, Catalonia has a "powerful system of cities" that ought to be able to be sufficient to maintain a "certain rural network". For the mayor of Torrebeses and president of the Association of Microvillages of Catalonia, Mario Urrea, the risk is real but not imminent: "We will not close villages a week from now, but we have to work for territorial rebalancing, depopulating the coastal strip and repopulating the inland area." According to Urrea, we have to focus on four main areas to try to solve this problem: improving the housing stock to make it more accessible; strengthening and diversifying economic activity; improving physical mobility -roads- and virtual mobility -optical fibre- in order to connect these rural areas with the whole world and, finally, to offer services to neighbours, from education to health to cultural services.

If no action is taken, some villages may end up disappearing for some time, but mostly only have second homes. "Mobility makes people move to where there is work. The question is that in these smaller municipalities, to maintain a certain sociability, if there is not enough population, there ends up being no medical care, no bar or school, and it becomes costly to maintain tminimum services," Aldomà sums up. "If we don't have cultural services in winter we have problems, because we have to become Nordic, we have to stay at home after six in the evening and we can become a commuter village, when what we want is to have living villages, where people can earn a decent living and not be a garden for the big city", defends Urrea. If this loss of services is not avoided, life will be concentrated in the main regional centres, forcing the residents of the smaller municipalities to take the car for everything, an impossible situation precisely for the elderly people who are becoming an ever larger part of the population.

The exception of Guissona

Although the areas most at risk of depopulation are in the Pyrenees and the regions of central Catalonia, the area of Guissona is a special case because it has the highest percentage of foreign residents. It is an area with an extraordinary activity due to the impact of the company bonÀrea, which has lured young workers from outside Spain. It is, according to Aldomà, a unique case that can not be reproduced in other rural areas, which follow demographic patterns "equivalent to what happened in the 60s".