SUCCESS STORY: Ebro campaign brings hope to Europe's rivers

Posted: 10 September 2004

Author: Saren Starbridge

Spain's Ebro Transfer, a massive network of dams and pipes that would carry 1,050 cubic hectometres of water per year out of the Ebro River Basin into four other river systems thousands of kilometres away while threatening both livelihoods and ecosystems - has been stopped. Here Saren Starbridge explains how this opens the way to better management of Europe's rivers.

Protest against the Spanish National Hydrological Plan (SNHP) painted on an abandoned house in the Ebro Delta, Spain.© WWF-Canon / WWF-Spain / Guido Schmidt
Protest against the Spanish National Hydrological Plan (SNHP) painted on an abandoned house in the Ebro Delta, Spain.© WWF-Canon / WWF-Spain / Guido Schmidt
Protest against the Spanish National Hydrological Plan (SNHP) painted on an abandoned house in the Ebro Delta, Spain.© WWF-Canon / WWF-Spain / Guido Schmidt
The situation called for dramatic and determined action, and that's what it got. For three years, hundreds of thousands of people gathered at massive demonstrations throughout the country. Fifteen thousand Spaniards travelled to Brussels to demonstrate against their country receiving EU funds for the project. Public meetings, leaflets, concerts, fiestas, giant flamingo puppets, even a paella competition - all helped spur action against the national government's cavalier water grab. "I have always had an interest in environmental and social issues," explains local activist Brian Cutts, "but I had never been involved in anything so incredible before." Golden opportunity

In April this year, Spain's newly elected Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero announced that "the Ebro Transfer will be repealed and that a review of the Spanish National Hydrological Plan (SNHP) may stop some specific infrastructures, replacing them with more efficient, cheaper, and less disputed projects." The Plan was approved by the previous government in 2001. It aimed to redistribute Spain's water through massive engineering projects - and the Ebro Transfer was a key element in it.

Zapatero's announcement has given campaigners some breathing space, but more importantly, it offers an opportunity to change the direction of water management in Europe. "It also offers us a golden opportunity to make use of the beauty of the Ebro Delta to promote some kind of sustainable ecotourism," hopes Cutts. Sun seekers

A magnet for sun seekers, southern Spain boasts over 300 days of sunshine a year. With an average annual rainfall as low as 250mm, a cloud-free holiday is practically guaranteed. At Costa Blanca, Costa Brava, Costa del Sol, and other locations, the Mediterranean seaside is encrusted with resorts catering to holidaymakers, and more are planned. Irrigation supports flowers, fruits, vegetables, olives, and vineyards, which flourish in the warm weather and feed a lucrative export market. It's a familiar Mediterranean scene: just add water and you have paradise. But the need for water can drown out common sense. And this is how the plan arose to siphon off some of the abundant water of Spain's north and send it to the parched but sunny south.

Magnificent delta

Northern Spain receives up to 950mm of rain annually, and it's here that the Ebro River arises. One of the longest rivers on the Iberian Peninsula, it flows out of the Cantabrian mountains through Catalunya's Rioja wine region and on to the Mediterranean. Midway between Barcelona and Valencia the river spreads out to into a magnificent delta. "The Ebro Delta is incredible, it's another world," says WWF campaigner Paloma Agrasot. Noted as an Important Bird Area, listed as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, and part of the EU's protected Natura 2000 network, the delta is an 8,000-ha mosaic of sand dunes, salt lagoons, and rice cultivation. About 300 bird species - 60 per cent of all species found in Europe - rest, nest, or feed here. Bird counts have recorded up to 180,000 individuals.

Spanish flamingos from the Ebro Delta protest against the SNHP in Brussels.© WWF
Spanish flamingos from the Ebro Delta protest against the SNHP in Brussels.© WWF
Spanish flamingos from the Ebro Delta protest against the SNHP in Brussels.© WWF
Changes to the river's flow would threaten the nests of some 30,000 pairs of waterbirds, including those of the charismatic greater flamingo. But the potential for disaster was considerably larger than a flock of big pink birds. Deltas are ephemeral landforms. The Ebro Delta requires an estimated 1.3-2 million cubic metres of sediment per year just to maintain its current condition. Existing dams have already reduced the amount of sediment carried by the river. Further dam building would cause irreversible erosion damage, affect fish migration, and, by diminishing the flow of freshwater nutrients, kill off fish living in the delta. In addition, the proposed infrastructure works would affect riparian forests and other habitats, threaten the survival of the endangered Iberian lynx, and facilitate the spread of feral fish and other aquatic organisms, such as zebra mussels - listed by the IUCN-The World Conservation Union as one of the world's 100 worst invasive alien species. Human impact "I could see the balance between river level and sea level would have been lost, creating serious saliniation problems and affecting the future of our crops," says rice farmer Jordi Prats. "The economic development of this area would have suffered a severe blow." Scientific research also showed that for every cubic metre of Ebro water that failed to reach the Mediterranean, an estimated 200kg less of sardines could be fished from the waters - a blow to the area's important fishery. "I have already noticed a slowing down to local economies in the region," adds Cutts. "For many years, young people have had to move to large cities to find work. The population of most towns is ageing. The only chance for future livelihoods depends on the area's natural resources -and the principal one is the river and its delta. So the transfer would have been the final nail in the coffin." Worrying precedent The Ebro Transfer would not have been Spain's first project to move water from one river basin to another. A case study of an earlier transfer from the Tajo River into the Segura basin shows worrying consequences.

Since the works were completed in 1973, water demands and fertiliser and pesticide use have increased in the Segura River Basin, while reduced flow in the Tajo means the river is unable to keep pace with effluents pouring in from Madrid. The middle Tajo is so severely polluted that it's unfit even to provide irrigation water. And the Segura, which was to benefit from the transfer, now has the dubious distinction of being the most polluted river in Spain, and possibly in Europe. One of the earliest and most outspoken critics of the Ebro Transfer and SNHP is Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, a physicist and economics professor at the University of Zaragoza. Winner of the 2003 Goldman Environmental Prize for Europe, Arrojo says the plan is "cynically aimed at using public money to build a gigantic system which would only profit financial speculators, luxury tourist installations, and industrial agriculture." Alternative plan Realising the scope of the issue, campaigners worked to stop the Ebro Transfer by demanding clear accountability in the EU funding process. "It is important that countries follow EU legislation and water directives in developing projects," says Agrasot. "It is also essential that the EU has the capacity to assess and monitor projects, and stop any that contravene EU legislation. The process must be clear and manageable, especially with the influx of new countries joining the EU." International NGOs such as WWF lobbied the EU to demand that funding go only to projects that meet EU standards. Local platforms, outspoken and determined, kept the issue in front of the public. People from affected areas knocked on EU doors, walked in, and began talking about the reality of their lives and what they would lose if the transfer went ahead. The European Commission received more letters on this than on any previous issue. On top of this, scientists provided information on the effects of climate change, weather patterns, loss of biodiversity, and movement of feral species. "Strategic campaigning and lobbying combined with good scientific research was extremely effective," says Schmidt. "This was a tremendous cooperative effort."

Following the April announcement, the Spanish government announced an alternative plan on 18 June to replace the Ebro Transfer project. But the activists are not relaxing yet. "The new plan is better," says Schmidt, "but a lot more could be done." The Ebro activists are now pushing for a new water culture. This is a powerful opportunity for the new government to review all the old SNHP proposals and develop projects that are sustainable. Encouragingly, Spain's new Minister of Environment, Cristina Narbona Ruiz, has already met with environmental NGOs. Arrojo and others are advocating sustainable water planning that includes recycling, waste reduction, and water quality improvements. Fixing leaky pipes, planting crops which don't require irrigation, revegetating river banks: these are all alternatives which could be cheaper and more effective in the short term than massive dam building projects - and far more beneficial in the long term.

  • The Ebro Delta The Ebro Delta is one of the most important areas of the Natura 2000 Network in the European Union, designated as Special Protection Area for birds (SPA), Natural Park, Ramsar site and Important Bird Area (IBA). Some 55,000 people live in the Ebro Delta, 500,000 people visit the area every year, there are 8,000 hectares of natural wetland, and 21,000 hectares are devoted to growing rice. The fishing industry contributes 18 million Euros to the local economy annually.
Saren Starbridge is a freelance writer.

Source: WWF International

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