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April 10, 2008 5:09 am
Spain’s second-largest city says it is on the brink of a water emergency as a result of one of the worst droughts in living memory.
Beginning next month, Barcelona will take the unprecedented step of importing water by ship from Marseilles, in southern France; Tarragona, a Catalan industrial port; and desalination plants in southern Spain.
Faced with the unpopular prospect of having to ration water over the summer, Barcelona is saving water where it can. The city’s fountains are dry. Beach showers have been turned off, and engineers are trying to plug leaks in the city’s water system. Watering gardens and filling large swimming pools have been banned.
Spain has had an exceptionally warm, dry winter, with only one-third of the rainfall of an average year. The drought has been particularly severe in the north west of Spain, where it is now in its 18th month. The reservoirs that supply Barcelona’s 5m inhabitants are only 20 per cent full.
The Catalan Water Agency says it has chartered 10 tankers to transport water to Barcelona for at least six months, or until rainfall returns to normal. This is expected to cost €22m (£17m, $35m) a month. Emergency wells are being dug in the region of Tarragona to supply the tanker ships.
“Unfortunately, costs are sky-rocketing due to the urgency of the situation and the lack of scruples of shipping companies,” says Pedro Arrojo of the University of Zaragoza, who is an expert in the economics of water management.
Scientists say the emergency measures to keep a huge metropolis supplied with water are the most dramatic example yet of how climate change is beginning to affect Europe’s densely populated Mediterranean rim.
Spain is getting hotter and drier, with average temperatures rising by 1°C since 1960. The European Environment Agency estimates average temperatures will rise a further 4°C over the next century. Winters are now so mild that storks have stopped their annual migration to north Africa.
The water crisis is also fraying political tempers. José Montilla, the regional president of Catalonia, would like to divert water from the river Segre, a tributary of the Ebro river, to top up Barcelona’s depleted reservoirs. But the plan has been vetoed by the central government in Madrid. Relations between Mr Montilla and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Spain’s acting prime minister, are said to be tense, in spite of the two men being fellow Socialists.
Even within Catalonia, there is no consensus on a long-term solution for the region’s water problems. Catalonia’s farmers are zealous about their irrigation rights and resent the growing demands of Barcelona.
Spain’s rightwing opposition favours a massive water-diversion scheme that would siphon water from the Ebro to supply dry provinces on the Mediterranean. But Mr Zapatero scrapped that project when he took office in 2004.
Mr Arrojo favours desalination, despite the process consuming a lot of energy.
“The city sits on a huge aquifer,” he says. “In fact, the metro has to pump millions of cubic metres a year to avoid flooding in its underground tunnels.”
The aquifer has been polluted and this could take decades to clean up. But there is a solution – reverse osmosis – similar to the technology used in desalination plants – that would allow Barcelona to make use of the water underground.”
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