Thousands in Madrid Protest Plan for River
Emma Daly New York Times Service
Monday, March 12, 2001
Diversion Would Aid Farming and Tourism
MADRID A sea of people swarmed the center of Madrid on Sunday to protest the use and abuse of Spain's limited water supply, which has been severely burdened by intensive agriculture and tourism along the arid southeastern coast.

The protesters, numbering as many as 400,000 people, according to the organizers, and 120,000 according to the police, took to the streets in a festive, noisy and colorful demonstration against the so-called National Hydrological Plan.

The plan, which envisions more than 100 reservoirs and, most controversially, a diversion of the Ebro River, which flows through Aragon and Catalonia, to supply water to farmers and vacationers in Valencia, Murcia and Almeria.

The protest was organized by a broad coalition of environmental and agricultural groups, labor unions and political parties, including Aragon's regional government, led by the Socialist Party.

Marcelino Iglesias, president of Aragon's government, said the sheer size of the demonstration should "puncture" the center-right government's plan and force a change of policy.

Just last month, 200,000 people marched against the plan in Barcelona, theoretically also a potential beneficiary of the Ebro diversion. How much the government heeds this opposition is unclear, because the plan is likely to be approved this year by Parliament, in which the Popular Party holds a huge majority.

In any case, Mr. Iglesias, who supports a national water plan as very much needed, said he was convinced that the National Hydrological Plan would never be approved in its current form because even the paperwork was expected to take years to complete and financing from the European Union was not guaranteed.

The issue arouses fierce passions in Aragon. The Ebro, Spain's largest river, flows through the heart of the province, yet great areas of potential farmland are semidesert because of a failure to fulfill promises to set up irrigation systems.

In Valencia, Murcia and Almeria, farmers have used hydroponic farming and low wages for illegal foreign workers to grow fruit and vegetables in sand under plastic covers. The plan also would stimulate the increase in tourist development along the southeastern coast, where people from northern Europe in particular are buying vacation and retirement homes.

Explaining the opposition to the water project, Mr. Iglesias said in an interview in Zaragoza on Saturday:

"The plan is aiming at an absolutely unsustainable model of development in areas of the country that are already among the most developed while consolidating a second-class Spain in the interior. Agriculture is the biggest consumer. So if you want to increase agriculture in a country where you already have to pay farmers not to produce, then do so where water is easily available."

The prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, granting interviews on the anniversary of his re-election victory last year, insisted that the water project, whose estimated cost is 3.7 trillion pesetas ($21 billion), was essential for Spain's development and that it did not contradict the interests of any group.

As if to underscore the uncertainties of the water supply, the Ebro came close to bursting its banks in Zaragoza last week after a year of unusually heavy rains; and even Andalusia, which has been relatively dry, has suffered crop losses from flooding. Only last summer, protesters in Zaragoza marched through the Ebro, then barely knee-deep, to prove their point that today's raging torrents are by no means guaranteed.

The Socialist Party last week proposed a cheaper, quicker alternate plan that emphasizes recycling, desalination and the reduction of leakage as well as the use of "public water banks" modeled on practices in California. Mr. Iglesias, Aragon's leader, added, "The only party able to pass a national water plan will be the party that is ready to negotiate with other political groupings and the autonomous communities."


 Copyright © 2001 The International Herald Tribune All Rights Reserved

Asociación Río Aragón-COAGRET