How to combat the challenges of living in rural Spain: the case of Pharmadron

An introduction to rural Spain: the case of Torres de Albarracín

I’ve always spent my summer holidays in Torres de Albarracín, a tiny, isolated and idyllic village in Teruel, Spain. Torres is, just as its neighbouring villages, surrounded by kilometres of mountains, forests and rivers, making it a perfect summer holiday destination. However, living in Torres may not be as exciting as spending a couple of weeks there. In fact, less than 200 people live permanently in the village, and while the number of inhabitants has been increasing in recent years, the table below shows a different  story: that of a town which used to be inhabited by more than 500 villagers in the 1910s, but which experienced a constant process of depopulation thereafter.

Table 1: population of Torres de Albarracín, 1900-2018 (foro-ciudad.com)
Table 2: population of Torres de Albarracín in 2011, by age (ine.es)

The challenges of living in rural Spain, and the perils of its demographic evolution, can be largely understood by looking at the case of Torres.

Traditionally, Torres’ economy was dominated by the primary sector. Whilst this started to change in recent decades (with the services sector becoming increasingly important), the former still plays a major role. This partly explains why many people -and in particular, young people- have left the village, looking for better jobs in different sectors, and in bigger towns and cities. Of course, the ripple effect has been significant.

Apart from the fact that this is having a detrimental impact on the private sector -the only grocery store closed a couple of years ago-, the limited access to basic public services is also particularly worrying. The closest hospital is 50km away, in the city of Teruel, and it takes nearly one hour to get there from Torres. A smaller health centre can be found in Torres’ neighbouring village, Albarracín – but you would still need a car to get there, as it’s nearly 15km away and only one bus connects Torres to Albarracín and Teruel, which departs from Torres every morning, from Monday to Saturday, and returns a couple of hours later.

Making changes to this situation is hard. In fact, trying to solve many of the mentioned problems using current resources and existing solutions is, in my humble opinion, impossible.  Nonetheless, the fact remains that nearly 4000 municipalities in Spain are inhabited by less than 500 people, and approximately 5000 are inhabited by less than 1000 people. Innovative and technologically advanced solutions are needed to ensure that the inhabitants of rural Spain, which is characterised by a decreasing population growth and the gradual ageing of its population, can remain independent and can benefit from a fair access to both private and public services.

The Emptied Spain: public discontent before the general election

The frustration with many of the unsolved challenges faced by those who live in rural Spain has brought together different citizen platforms representing various regions of the country, which have complaint about “the Emptied Spain” (La España Vaciada). On the 31st March, one month before the general election, between 50,000 and 100,000 people from rural Spain gathered in Madrid for the so-called “Emptied Spain Revolt”, calling for “equality, structuring, balanced territorial development and measures to combat depopulation”. The march targeted national policy-makers, who are believed to have favoured the development of urban areas alone.

One of the associations that organised this event was, in fact, Teruel Existe, not only representing those living in Teruel city (Spain’s smallest provincial capital, with just 35,000 inhabitants) but also those who live in the towns and villages of the province of Teruel – such as Torres de Albarracín.

The march had a significant impact on the media, and attracted many policy-makers and politicians. However, we should ask ourselves if this is this solely a political issue. Of course, politics has played an undeniable role, perhaps not so much by causing many of the problems, but rather by not coming up with appropriate and timely solutions. As figure 1 showed, Torres’ population decline (and the consequences of this decline) is not a recent phenomenon, but rather the result of different factors that have been ignored -or at least haven’t been prioritised- by the political elites.  

However, politicians alone cannot make drastic changes by using existing resources and off-the-shelf solutions that aren’t tailored to the current demographic, economic, social and technological realities of rural Spain. Coming up with solutions that will stop rural depopulation, improve public services and attract investment is certainly a challenge that policy-makers alone cannot face. National and regional governments need to listen more closely to what organisations such as Teruel Existe say, and collaborate with industry representatives and advocacy groups to understand both what the problems really are, and what innovative solutions could look like.

Case study: Pharmadron

Pharmadron aims to ensure that older people and patients with chronic illnesses “have universal access to medicines and are able to remain independent and active within their communities”. Pharmadron is a project funded by the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism, which is looking at the delivery of medical supplies to rural, isolated and hard-to-access towns and villages using drones. The project is led by Novaltia, a pharmaceutical distribution cooperative; and Delsat, a drones company. Other organisations participate in this initiative, such as the Aerospace Cluster of Aragón (AERA) and the Aeronautical Platform of Teruel (PLATA).

To test this project, a drone will be used to deliver medical supplies to a pharmacy in Gea de Albarracín (which is, by the way, only 20 minutes away from Torres, and therefore shares the many of the discussed issues with the latter). Gea is relatively close to Teruel’s airport, which offers aircraft maintenance and storage services, and is also where Delsat has its testing centre.

Current legislation in Spain does not allow the use of commercial drones to carry out the activities proposed by the Pharmadron project. However, the involved organisations will be able to carry out an initial trial run to test the theoretical findings of the project, and will try to convey in a practical manner how the use of drones to carry medical supplies can positively impact communities, in the hope of helping policy-makers adapt current legislation in the future.

Whilst we are simply witnessing the beginning of the Pharmadron project, the fact that this could benefit rural Spain in undeniable. Making policy changes is, of course, complex, and Pharmadron will have to work closely with a wide range of regional and national policy-makers interested in rural development, healthcare services and air security.

Taking into account the fact that the general election took place recently and it could still take a couple of months for a new government to form; and that local and regional elections will be taking place this week, it is the perfect time to start devising a comprehensive communications strategy that targets decision-makers and adapts its messages to the results of the elections.

In addition, bringing key associations on board as supporters of the initiative might also be beneficial to avoid being viewed solely as an industry-led project. Groups such as Teruel Existe or the Spanish Society of Rural Pharmacy might be strong allies.  

Pharmadron is an exciting project that has shown why government and industry need to collaborate in order to come up with realistic, economically-viable and yet innovative solutions. In rural regions, where building new infrastructures and employing additional HCPs might not make sense economically speaking, initiatives such as Pharmadron are essential to improve the healthcare sector. Similar projects will be needed to improve the struggling education sector or the transport system, among many other things, to ensure that the Emptied Spain is filled again with new hopes and dreams.

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