Irrigation in the Ebro basin: are farmers abusing cheap
for irrigation is 100 times cheaper than water for industry
uses vast quantities of water. To meet its country’s needs, the government has resorted
to technical solutions such as diverting the Ebro river–a project that many people
have condemned for squandering a precious resource
What we call ‘the water
problem’ in Spain is going to become ‘the water war,’” predicted Spanish ecologist
José Manuel Naredo in 1997. Three years later, the 400,000 people who marched
through the streets of Zaragoza (a town of 650,000 inhabitants) on October 8 appeared
to prove him right. Their target was the National Water Plan (NWP), unveiled by the
government on September 5.
The plan’s centrepiece is the diversion of a billion cubic metres of water each year
from the River Ebro to occasionally or permanently arid regions on the country’s
Mediterranean coast. For inhabitants of the province of Aragón, the 700,000
million pesetas (more than $3.5 billion) that the government intends to spend on
building 529 kilometres of new waterways and several dams are simply 700,000 drops
of water in a cup that is already spilling over.
Aragón feels robbed. The 400,000 demonstrators may have been exaggerating
a little when they shouted that the waters of “our Ebro” would be used to keep golf
courses green, fill swimming pools for tourists and supply amusement parks while
others die of thirst and neglect. But as Naredo observes, “people no longer accept
the mainstay of Spanish water policy for the last century, of taking water where
you find it and transferring it to where it’s needed.”
The opponents of the NWP have stepped up their attacks. They say water supplies can
no longer be managed on technical criteria alone. The planned diversions are dangerous,
they argue, because the Ebro basin has not had a water surplus for the past quarter
of a century.
But their main criticism is that the diversion of the river is completely unnecessary.
Economic history teacher Enric Tello believes the answer to Spain’s water problems
lies in “reorganizing the supply.” He argues that the country is suffering from “water
schizophrenia” and that “sooner or later taxpayers will wonder why they are still
subsidizing the irrigation of crops that are already being subsidized and are often
produced in excessive quantities.”
This “schizophrenia” arises, he says, from the huge gap between the price of water
for irrigation, which is almost free, and the much higher cost of water used in cities
and industries. So why not try to narrow that gap? The answer could lie in a small
detail that both Tello and Naredo point to: Environment Minister Jaume Matas launched
the NWP at the headquarters of the Public Works Employers’ Federation.
The ministry offers a quite different spin. Officials say demand for water will keep
on growing and requires the building of costly aqueducts. They agree that the irrigated
area of around 3.5 million hectares should not be increased, but defend the river
diversion plan and talk of building more than 70 new dams at a cost of three thousand
billion pesetas (about $15.5 billion) over eight years. All of which clashes with
a European Union directive defining every water catchment area as a distinct management
unit and ruling out water transfers from one area to another.
But the ministry insists it is no longer possible to “go backwards,” declaring that
the NWP “will solve the water problem for good.” Spain’s 1,070 big dams already make
it the world’s leading country in terms of proportion of dam-created lakes to total
land mass. The fact is, however, that many serve no purpose, since for months on
end they are filled to only five or 10 percent capacity.
Spain began its first major river diversion scheme in the 1960s by linking the Tagus
in the west and centre-west to the Segura in the southeast–a transfer of 600 million
cubic metres of water a year. But in 1999, the province of Castilla, which the Tagus
flows through, refused to supply a drop more than 40 million cubic metres, less than
10 percent of the amount originally planned.
What had happened? Maize growing, which requires a lot of water, expanded in the
regions along the Tagus (the Mancha and the Meseta). To irrigate today’s 150,000
hectares of maize, you need to draw heavily on underground water and also pump more
from the Tagus. In Murcia (watered by the Segura), which benefits from the diversion
scheme, irrigated areas have grown enormously. Biologist José Luis Benito
notes that “absurd though it might seem, the diversion of the Tagus has turned a
hitherto occasional and irregular drought into a systematic and permanent one.”
Forty million hectares of Spain have a Mediterranean climate. Because the rainy season
and warm weather do not coincide, there is little vegetation. Planting maize, alfalfa,
potatoes and beans in such a climate is not a particularly sound idea because these
crops depend upon a lot of water. In the Mancha, for instance, it takes a tonne of
water to produce a kilo of maize. If water was not subsidized, as Pedro Arrojo has
noted in his study of the irrigated regions of Aragón, 90 percent of this
land could not be profitably farmed.
This has led the historian Tello into calling for a new agricultural policy based
around sustainable development which would preserve subsidies for “maintaining balanced
land use and other social and environmental reasons,” but hand out the aid directly
to farms rather than using it to bring down the price of water, fuel and chemical
If water for irrigation were not 100 times cheaper than water for industry, crops
unsuited to Spain’s climate would be abandoned. But Tello has proposed a solution
already adopted in the United States through the California Water Bank. This “market”
allows farmers, at certain times of the year, to re-sell some of their water stocks
to cities that need it. Because they make money from this, they can then grow crops
that need less water, even if they are less profitable. So the cities get the water
they need, the farmers do not lose money and water resources are not over-used.
Of the one billion cubic metres of water that will be diverted under the NWP, 300
million will go to the Valencia region, 430 million to Murcia, 90 to the Andalusian
province of Almería and 180 to Catalonia. But the latter has no water shortage,
and is unlikely to have one for at least another 25 years judging by its current
population growth. Naredo adds that after Barcelona’s preparations for the 1992 Olympic
Games, which involved shutting down old industrial plants that consumed a lot of
water, “the city’s water table rose to the point that it had to pump water out to
avoid flooding the subway and underground parking lots.”
Tello has looked into the potential benefits of “a system that would penalize waste
and encourage saving and recycling water.” Whenever industry has realized water can
cost it 10 times less through careful planning, it has changed its patterns of use.
Tello has also shown that investing 100,000 pesetas (about $500) to equip every household
in Catalonia with electrical and water appliances that can save and re-use water
would be cheaper than a projected scheme to channel water from the River Rhône,
in southern France, to Barcelona, at a cost of around 200 billion pesetas (more than
Taxing water in a more consistent way would solve another big problem: that of outdated
piping. Pedro Arrojo has noted that the water network in Zaragoza was so leaky that
no difference was registered between daytime and nighttime consumption. In the market
gardening area around Valencia, the price farmers pay for water is fixed by the amount
of land they need to irrigate, meaning that losses caused by faulty piping are generally
ignored. Another example is the Jucar imperial canal, which is built directly in
the earth and results in massive leakage.
second largest ecological reserve under threat
gets 346 billion cubic metres of rainfall each year, of which 109 billion remains
after evaporation. This should be enough to meet an annual demand of 35 billion cubic
metres, 80 per cent of it for agriculture, which usually pays one peso per cubic
In areas where the price of water for irrigation is higher (30 pesetas a cubic metre)
because it comes from desalination plants or from underground, farming is very sophisticated.
Almería, which 20 years ago was Spain’s poorest province, is today the country’s
fastest growing one and relies upon the most foreign labour (which is neither welcomed
nor assimilated). Because yields are very high, the province has 13,000 hectares
of land that are illegally irrigated.
The diversion of the Ebro is an ineffective response to Spain’s cultural, social,
political and economic problems. Opponents of the scheme say it even creates new
difficulties: the defenders of the environment are especially worried that the Ebro
delta, the country’s second biggest ecological reserve, might disappear.
Since the end of the 19th century, sediment in the river has dropped by 95 percent.
As a result, the government has to invest about 20 billion pesetas ($100 million)
to add sand to some beaches. One thing is nevertheless certain: if desertification
continues to advance in Spain, the country will not be needing extra sand.