Wednesday, 2 April 2008

The Politics of the Drought

They say that most future wars will be fought over water. If so, the current political situation in Spain gives us a foretaste of how difficult it will be for the UN to solve such conflicts. For the last six years there has been a shortage of fresh water in Catalonia. Natural reservoirs are currently below 20% of their capacity and if the level falls any further a state of emergency will be declared and restrictions imposed also on private households.

On the supply side, the back-up plan to bring in water in tanker ships from desalination plants in Almería is already being implemented. At the same time, old wells have been mapped with the intention to see whether any of them can be restored. Measures are being taken on the consumption side as well. Maintenance of the pipe system is improving in order to minimize the losses during transport. Recently, limitations came into place for the use of water in swimming pools as well as for public greenery. As a result of this, an experiment is currently carried out on the Plaça de la Inmaculada Concepció here in Vilanova, where the lawn has been replaced with artificial grass.

But this is far from enough, and that is why some Catalan socialist politicians now ask for solidarity from the rest of the country (i.e. Catalonia; la visió del país). Both Joaquim Nadal (Councillor of Town and Country as well as Public Works) and the mayor of Barcelona, Jordi Hereu, want preparations to be made for the transfer of water to Barcelona from the river Segre. They underline that the water will only be used as a last resort, but that there is a need to start building the infrastructure now to have it finished by October when it might be needed.

Now this is a highly sensitive issue, above all with fellow socialists on the state level. PSOE is firmly against the 2001 version of the National Hydrology Plan (Plan Hidrológico Nacional; P.H.N.) as proposed by PP during their latest term of office – according to which water from the river Ebro was to be transferred to Valencia and Murcia – and the Segre is a tributary of the Ebro.

So what solutions are there then? CiU, the opposition in the Catalan parliament, favours supplies from the French river Rhône by tanker ships. Compared with the water from Almería, it would be more environmentally friendly in the sense that it is river water and would not cause a need to waste energy on desalination, but can be an alternative only on a medium term. Another remedy will come when Barcelona’s own desalination plant in Baix Llobregat becomes operational. Finally, farmers at the mouth of the Ebro are prepared to sell redundant water from their already existing transfer to Tarragona. The last proposal has the advantage of being achievable short term - all it takes is a connecting pipe between Vilanova's neighbour towns Cubelles and Cunit (the border between the Barcelona and Tarragona provinces).

If worst comes to worst, ecologist Josep Peñuelas suggests that a temporary transfer from the Segre is not such a bad option and underlines the difference between this and what was once outlined in the P.N.H. The water from the Segre will be used to solve short term problems in an existing urban area, while the transfer from the Ebro was intended for new housing developments in until then uninhabited land.

Among the capitals of South Europe, Barcelona stands out for its poor water situation although the city has a low average per capita consumption. It goes without saying that the issue needs to be addressed long term. If the discussions which we see now are repeated next year, it will risk to damage the city’s reputation.

Short term, we all know that the problem will be solved, one way or the other, and I guess that is why one Lavanguardia commentator allows himself to joke about it. Since the coming Expo 2008 in Zaragoza will be built around the theme of water, he proposes that there be a special hall dedicated to the water conflicts within the Spanish state: Valencia versus Catalonia, Castilla - La Mancha versus Murcia etc. He also calls on Aragon to be generous and send us some water, at least during the months of the Expo. If not, there is a risk that a smell of sweat will reveal which of the visitors come from Barcelona.

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