September 22, 2000

The Spanish government has presented long-awaited proposals to tackle water shortages, but experts are worried the cure may be worse than the disease.

The National Hydrology Plan concentrates on the problems of Spain's Mediterranean coast, one of the fastest-developing areas in Spain. Government thinking is that as water is plentiful in sparsely populated mountainous regions of Spain, the solution is to funnel water from the wetter to the drier areas. It proposes spending (4.2 billion (Pounds 2.6 million) on a series of channels to divert water from the Ebro river to Barcelona in the north and the JNocar and Segura river basins further south. Another idea is to build 70 dams.

For Fernando L"pez, professor of hydrology at Madrid's Autonomous University, this is "a traumatic solution as it provokes conflicts between regions and affects delicate ecosystems the government is supposed to protect such as the Delta del Ebro".

The Aragon region has already voiced its opposition to the scheme. Environmentalists fear that any reduction to the flow of the Ebro could lead the delta, home to thousands of people and Spain's second biggest biodiversity reserve, to disappear entirely within 50 years. Professor L"pez believes the plan dodges major issues such as the worsening quality of water throughout Spain and works merely to satisfy demand rather than curbing it.

Agriculture is the main user of Spanish water, consuming 80 per cent of the total. Ram"n Llamas, professor of hydrogeology at Madrid's Computense University, says the real problem is not so much lack of water as waste and bad management. Farmers who use surface water for irrigation pay very little for the resource. "When you pay almost nothing for something, obviously demand is infinite," he says, pointing out that Spain is out of line with the "user pays" principle enshrined in the forthcoming EU directive Water for Europe.

Professor Llamas says a change of mentality is needed. "You have got to get thousands of people to agree on things if you are to manage the water supply properly."

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