Pipe dreams for Spain's water

Posted: 18 July 2002

Author: Guy Beaufoy

The Spanish government's plans to pipe water from the north of the country to the south goes firmly against the EU's principles of sustainable development and environmental responsibility, says Guy Beaufoy in this commentary from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

No one can argue that a country like Spain, with scarce and already over-exploited water resources, needs a national hydrological plan. But the one adopted by the Spanish government last year (2001) - in which fragile river ecosystems are treated as reservoirs that must be squeezed to the last drop - makes a mockery of the EU's environmental principles and the idea of sustainable development. The Ebro river already has a number of dams, with more planned under the SNHP.© WWF/Guido Schmidt The Spanish National Hydrological Plan (SNHP) proposes to meet the country's water demands by transferring water from areas where it is "in excess" to other areas with a "water deficit". In total, the plan involves the building of 104 new dams, plus over 700 other works, including pipelines and canals between river basins. The prize folly is a 912km pipeline from the Ebro river in the north to supply water for irrigation and tourist developments in the south and east of the country.

Olive madness

The plan - which will be partially funded by EU tax-payers - makes no attempt to manage current demand in order to achieve a more sustainable use of the country's water. On the contrary it will increase the exploitation of water, which will only help to drive the development of further unsustainable agriculture and tourism in the Spanish south-east.

One example of the madness of the SNHP is olive plantations. These have been cited as a potential beneficiary of new irrigation under the SNHP and the closely related, and also EU-funded, Spanish National Irrigation Plan. However, Spain already exceeds its subsidy quota for olives by over 50 per cent and this year announced a 400,000 tonne surplus of olive oil, resulting in falling prices.

And in a wonderful example of backwards logic, many existing olive plantations are irrigated by illegal bore holes, which are largely to blame for the depletion of aquifers in the south and south-east of Spain - the same depletion that is the government's justification for transferring water from the Ebro river in the first place.

Rather than increasing the area of irrigated olive plantations, it would be far better if the Spanish government used mechanisms under the EU Common Agricultural Policy to promote a more sustainable use of irrigation water, for example by adding environmental conditions to olive subsidies to clamp down on bore holes.

Neglected principles

The use of EU tax-payers' money to fund the SNHP threatens not just the sustainable use of water in Spain, but also the EU's environmental credibility. In recent years, the EU has incorporated important environmental principles into its legal framework.

For example, the EU Treaty requires that all EU policies promote sustainable development and that environmental protection is integrated into all policy areas. The Sixth Environmental Action Programme emphasises the importance of promoting new models of development that are based on the sustainable use of resources. The EU Water Framework Directive also requires governments to take a sustainable approach to managing water resources.

The SNHP flies in the face of these principles and legal requirements. As well as not being sustainable, it strikes a blow at the Natura 2000 network of protected areas, part of the EU Habitats Directive that aims to conserve important European habitats and species.

The dams and other projects will directly impact 44 Sites of Community Importance proposed by the Spanish government for inclusion in Natura 2000, and indirectly impact a further 38. Not surprisingly, river ecosystems will be the worst affected, including several protected woodland and fish species. In upland areas, dams will threaten the habitat of the Iberian lynx, the world's most endangered feline.

Human needs

In addition, the EU funds that the Spanish government proposes to use for the SNHP were never designed to support such a scheme. Part of the earmarked money comes from the Cohesion Fund, half of which is meant to promote EU environmental priorities laid down under the Sixth Environmental Action Plan.

These priorities include the sustainable use of natural resources and management of waste; tackling climate change; nature and biodiversity conservation; and environment and health. Yet incredibly, the Spanish government allocates no money from the Cohesion Fund for addressing any of these environmental priorities.

The other fund earmarked to finance the SNHP is the European Regional and Development Fund. According to the EU regulation that governs its use, the broad aim of this fund is to improve social and economic conditions in poorer areas. While many such areas exist in Spain, the transfer of water from the Ebro river will only help the booming south-east of the country to develop even further - and in an ultimately unsustainable manner.

Hidden projects

There is also a worrying lack of transparency in the process of approving EU funding for SNHP projects. Broad spending regional programmes have been approved already by the European Commission, but these make no mention of specific projects. Until individual works are presented to the European Commission for funding, nobody knows precisely which ones will receive EU tax-payers' money.

This situation is compounded by the veil of secrecy maintained by Spanish authorities and the European Commission as to which projects are currently being presented for funding, despite European Parliamentary questions on the subject.

WWF has identified many environmental actions requiring urgent investment in Spain that are in line with EU priorities. These include improved monitoring of water quality and promoting reductions in water consumption, which are needed if Spain is to comply with the Water Framework Directive.

Wrong priority

Setting up an effective Natura 2000 network is another urgent priority, especially as this is already seven years behind the legal schedule. Spain's lamentable performance in tackling climate change has recently been highlighted by the European Environment Agency, and so should be a high priority for the Cohesion Fund.

Spain receives more funds from the EC than any other country, with total sums allocated for 2000-2006 amounting to approximately €43 billion from Structural Funds (nearly a quarter of the EU total) and €11.4 billion from the Cohesion Fund (nearly two-thirds of the EU total).

Instead of SNHP pipe dreams, this money should be used for promoting real social, economic, and environmental improvements, in a balanced and sustainable way.

Guy Beaufoy is President of the Asociación para el Análisis y Reforma de la Política Agro-rural (ARPA), a non-profit NGO in Spain that promotes rural reform. He is also a consultant to WWF-Spain on EU policies concerning the environment.

For further information on the Spanish National Hydrological Plan and WWF's work on it, visit: WWF Living Waters Program - Europe.