Arid Barcelona forced to import water

Elizabeth Nash
Friday 11 April 2008 00:00 BST

Barcelona is to take the unprecedented step of importing water by ship to prevent a water crisis prompted by extreme drought. The emergency measure, to start next month, indicates dramatically how climate change has affected one of Europe's most developed cities – a metropolis known for its efficient infrastructure.

The Catalan Water Agency has chartered 10 tankers to ship water to Spain's second city from Marseilles in France, from the Catalan port of Tarragona, and from desalination plants near Almeria in Spain's parched south. Some water may be transported by rail. Water will be imported for at least six months, or until the resumption of normal rainfall ends the region's acute water shortage.

The emergency has already prompted officials in Barcelona to turn off municipal fountains and beachside showers, drain ornamental lakes and large swimming pools, order a hosepipe ban backed up with fines, and patch up leaky pipes. If the drought persists this summer, city authorities face the unpopular option of water rationing. There are plans to distribute imported water at reduced pressure, so that taps will trickle rather than gush. Spain has suffered a water shortage for 18 months, receiving only a third of its average rainfall. The drought is believed to be the most acute since the 1940s. Reservoirs nationwide are at less than half capacity, while in Catalonia they are barely a fifth full.

The need for action has sparked discord between Catalonia's regional government, led by Jose Montilla, and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government in Madrid. Both men are Socialists but differ sharply on the best solution.

Mr Montilla favours transferring water from the river Segre, which rises in the Pyrenees and flows into the mighty Ebro. But Mr Zapatero has vetoed that plan as creating wider social and environmental problems for regions that form part of the Ebro basin.

Even Mr Montilla recognises that "taking the water from the source of a river is not the best solution". But he insisted this week: "The option of the Segre remains open if no other real alternatives present solutions for 5.5 million citizens affected by drought."

No easy solution is at hand. Agriculture strenuously defends its irrigation rights and crops are largely watered with recycled or "grey" water unsuitable for drinking. Catalan farmers complain that they – and the Ebro delta ecosystem – will suffer if water is shipped north to Barcelona: they will charge dear to relinquish precious supplies. Meanwhile, engineers are redigging old wells, filtering polluted aquifers, drilling new wells around Tarragona and frantically laying pipes for "temporary" transfers.

For the long term, in recognition that climate change is making Spain's water increasingly scarce, Mr Zapatero favours desalination plants. Spain has 950 plants producing enough water for 10 million people. Two more are being built near Barcelona but will not be ready till 2009.

In Andalusia this week, however, the worst rainstorms for 10 years devastated beach areas, burst drains and kept boats in port.

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