Barcelona floats creative solution to water crisis

This week, it began importing potable water by ship as part of a broader effort to meet needs. Its reservoirs are down to 20 percent capacity.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    A ship loaded with drinking water is seen docked in the northern Spanish port of Barcelona as part of an unprecedented emergency plan to alleviate a drought in the city. The ship was carrying some 5.3 million gallons of water, roughly enough to satisfy a day's requirements for 180,000 people.
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With Spain’s average rainfall down 40 percent last year, many cities have restricted residents from filling their swimming pools or watering their lawns. But perhaps no municipality has developed such diverse and creative solutions as hard-hit Barcelona, which this week began a €44 million ($68 million) operation to bring in drinking water by ship.

On Tuesday, the first vessel – from the southern city of Tarragona – arrived in Barcelona’s port, where firemen discharged the ship’s 20 tanks into a pipeline linked to the city’s water distribution network. The next day, Barcelona residents were drinking Tarragona water from their taps.

The measure is designed to stave off a water crisis that has been building for some time and has reduced Barcelona’s reservoirs to 20 percent of their capacity.

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“For the past four years, we’ve had a shortage of rain,” says Narcis Prat, a water expert at the University of Barcelona. “Now we have a shortage of water. Without significant rain, we only have enough to last until December.”

Professor Prat points out that the population of Spain’s second-largest city has grown by more than 1.5 million in the past 15 years, stretching limited resources further. That means the citizens’ “excellent” conservation habits aren’t enough, says Barcelona’s mayor, Jordi Hereu.

“The area of Barcelona is exemplary in its consumption,” he says. “But we’re talking about 5.5 million people.... And all of them have a right to water.”

The water boats are the most immediate solution, which will allow the city to forgo rationing over the summer. Ten ships will bring an estimated 2.6 cubic hectometers of water to the city each month for the next six months. Most of it will be bought from Tarragona and Marseilles, though some will also come from a desalination plant in southern Spain.

The city has entertained other ideas, too. Some have been discarded, such as importing water by train (too expensive) or diverting it from the Rhone (too lengthy a process).

Other measures, such as recycling water, are still in the works, though none offers a perfect solution. Newly dug wells have angered local farmers, who argue that they salinate native aquifers. A desalination plant, slated for completion in 2009, which will convert Barcelona’s seawater to fresh, has provoked the ire of environmentalists and raised concerns about other resources.

“Desalination plants require a lot of energy to run,” says Joan Armengol, professor of ecology at the University of Barcelona. “And just as we have a shortage of water, we have a shortage of energy in Spain.”

No measure has been more controversial than a pipeline to divert water from the Ebro River to Barcelona. In addition to concerns about compromising other areas’ water supplies, it has provoked charges of political favoritism, since the Socialist federal government approved the pipeline for Barcelona, which is also controlled by Socialists, but overturned plans for a similar pipeline to Valencia and Murcia, two thirsty areas run by the opposition Popular Party.

The debate over the pipeline, which should be completed in October, has become so fierce that it’s been dubbed the “water wars.”

But even cooler heads see problems with it. “What we need is something that isn’t just one-way. What we need is a whole network that guarantees supply ... so that water can circulate throughout the region,” says Professor Armengol.

Local officials and the regional water authority argue that the multiple efforts will guarantee supplies in both the short and long term.

“We’re exploring all preventive options so that we can guarantee water supplies now and in the future,” says mayor Hereu. “Water is a fundamental right, and the government has to protect it.”

But some critics worry that the government is missing the most effective solution.

“In California, where they have a lot of experience with water shortages, a city like Los Angeles can negotiate for water with a place like the Imperial Valley that has greater supply. They create a water bank,” says Prat. “Here, we don’t have these global solutions.

“Our government may be Socialist, but when it comes to water policy, Schwarzenegger is far more progressive.”

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