The Sunday Times Magazine, 21-VII-2002

Your money down their drain

Stephen Burgen 

A £13 billion plan to divert water across Spain has been slammed as a costly scheme to benefit not dry land but water companies. And the British would have to help pay for it

The view from the corner of the Calle Luis Buñuel is not what you'd expect from a street named in honour of the surrealist film maker. In the foreground is the broad, green valley of the River Aragon, and beyond rise the wild white peaks of the Pyrenees. But Buñuel was from Aragon, so he is celebrated here in Artieda, a village of 100 souls, whose serene and majestic vistas do not hint at the monstrosity that lies just a few miles downstream, or suggest the sense of doom that hangs over this tranquil place.

Alfredo Solano was made here. To say he was born and lives here wouldn't convey the degree to which he is a part of it, and it of him. With three neighbours he has formed a co-operative; they work the land and keep pigs. The business is going well, but that's not the point: it's not so much his livelihood that he's worried about; it's his identity, which is wrapped up in this valley.

'What is humiliating,' he says with eloquence, 'is this neocolonialism that will destroy everything about my life and my traditions, and will drive me and my family and my neighbours out of this valley, just so that someone - probably someone from another country - can have a second home miles away on the coast.'

In Tortosa, 250 miles away, where the River Ebro flows into the Mediterranean, Manolo Tomas says, with an ironic smile: 'There are laws that protect the birds and plants to be found here in the delta, but none that protect the people.'

For Solano and Tomas the issue is the same: water. Except that, as they vehemently point out, it's not about water, it's about money.

The idea of diverting water from one place that has it to another that hasn't is as old as agriculture itself. But a scheme to build 118 dams and 14 canals, one of them 434 miles long, to move water from parts of the country that have an 'excess' to parts that suffer from a 'shortage' might have made the pharaohs gulp. Even China would struggle to dig that much dirt and mix that much concrete in eight years. But this is what the Spanish government proposes in the Plan Hidrologico Nacional (National Water Plan).

The plan is presented by the government as Spain's great opportunity, without specifying for what, except to say that it will solve all the nation's water problems - at a cost, of course, currently estimated at £13 billion. And that's before anyone has so much as picked up a spade. All dam-building schemes hitherto have gone way over budget and there's no reason to think that this, the most grandiose of all, won't as well. Naturally, the taxpayer will pick up the tab; and not just the Spanish taxpayer, because a third of the cost is expected to be funded by Europe. So the money will come out of British pockets too.

Even if it were true that the water will go to irrigate the parched lands of the southeast, the type of agriculture prevalent there is already of the kind geared towards the lunacy of the common agricultural policy, where agribusiness - exploiting illegal immigrant labour - grows fast-turnover cash crops that, because of overproduction, Brussels pays it to destroy.If the government is a little vague about what the plan is for, then its opponents - who are many and vociferous - are more succinct

It is an opportunity to line the pockets of the government's friends in big business, they say, especially those in construction and power generation. 'The government has linked agua and obras, water and construction, in people's minds,' says Tomas, the spokesman for the Platform in Defence of the Ebro. 'They never talk about the one without the other. But this plan isn't about water, it's about construction. This is public money, European money, being put into the pockets of big business in Spain.'

Pedro Arrojo, an economic analyst at Zaragoza university, agrees. 'This is a plan for concrete,' he says. 'It will only benefit big construction and hydroelectric companies, and speculative builders who are anticipating juicy deals on the coast.'

Spain already has 1,200 large dams - it is fourth in the world dam-building league after China, India and the United States. A map of Spain suggests that it's a country of many large lakes, but those jagged blue patches are all dam waters. At the end of the 1950s, 20 years after the end of the civil war, 20 years known as the 'years of hunger', dams were presented as the saviours of the nation, providing electricity, irrigation and prosperity. Dams sprung up everywhere - funded by the state but built by private enterprise - until there wasn't a river in the Pyrenees that didn't have a dam on it.

But the most dammed river of all is the Ebro, so it is both the key to the plan and the focus of opposition. The Ebro rises in the north near Santander and winds southeast through Rioja and Zaragoza, until it empties into the sea in the weirdly beautiful Catalan region of the Ebro delta. It is a stately river and, except where its progress is interrupted by dams, there is something about it that lifts the spirits. In a country with few great rivers, it is much loved, and in Aragon it is the object of an almost mystical reverence. It is also in danger and, after the driest winter in 10 years, has sunk to its lowest recorded level.

The genesis of the national water plan was unusual, to say the least. It was first proposed in 1993 under the Socialist government of Felipe Gonzalez. His water minister, Josep Borrell, came up with the concept - or slogan - of 'dry Spain' and 'wet Spain' and a scheme for the latter to irrigate the former. The proposals were apparently made without research into supply and demand or risks to the environment, and seem to have appeared out of thin air, or at least off the top of the minister's head - his background is in telecommunications and the treasury, not water or the environment. The plan immediately met opposition because it infringed long-held water rights, and by the time the Socialists fell in 1996, Borrell had distanced himself from it.

It was soon revived by the incoming Popular party's water minister, Benigno Blanco. Blanco, who is now minister for infrastructure, was at the time an adviser to Iberdrola, Spain's main generator of hydroelectricity and an enterprise that clearly maintains an interest in both rivers and dam-building. In spite of this apparent conflict of interest, the minister was allowed to present his plan, again with little prior research. He now, claims the prosecution, faces eight years in jail on charges that, in 1996, when he was still the water minister, he falsified documents and concealed evidence that showed that the construction of a dam at Santaliestra in Aragon could lead to a human catastrophe, owing to geological problems. The charges also refer to Blanco's 'lack of objectivity' (his connections with Iberdrola).

For a proposal of such enormous social and financial implications, the National Water Plan act is surprisingly short: 15 pages of preamble and 12 pages listing dams and other works to be carried out, with no explanation of their purpose. The plan envisages an absolute rise in demand and has relatively little to say about recycling waste water, desalinating sea water or using underground resources. It is, say critics, 'a 19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem'. The respected economist Josep Verges says it is unsustainable, uncompetitive and better suited to a communist regime than modern Europe.

Blanco also said the existing legislation needed to be reformed to allow for water 'franchises'. Privatisation, in other words, from which the hydro companies - the only people in a position to control significant quantities of water - would be the main beneficiaries. Under the new law, they could sell the electricity, then the water from which it is generated. (Up to now, Spanish water has never been anyone's property.) It allows for the establishment of 'state water companies' to attract private investment. This is disingenuous: the only reason a private investor would put money into a state-run business is that they expect a return, and the only means of getting that return is by selling the water. But the government cannot say it is privatising water, as water is a highly emotive issue.

At the heart of the proposal is the plan to divert water from the Ebro via two canals, one running north to Barcelona and the other south to Valencia, Murcia and Almeria. Both would originate near Tortosa, at the mouth of the Ebro. Of the 1,050 cubic hectometres of water that would be extracted per year - equal to 70 litres per Spaniard per day - about one fifth would go to Catalunya, one third to Valencia, nearly half to Murcia and the remainder to Almeria.

However, the Ebro is in full flow for only a few months of the year, and in summer, when demand is highest, there would be insufficient water to fill the canals. This is why Solano is so depressed and angry. The only way the scheme can work is if water is warehoused, as he puts it, to boost the river's summer flow. And the only place to warehouse water is in the Pyrenees, in his valley.

What you can't see from his village is the dam a few miles down river at Yesa. Built in 1959, Yesa is immense and, like all dams, there is something sinister about it and the waters it holds back. Uglier still is the muddy moonscape it has made of a long stretch of valley that is only submerged a few months of the year. If the plan goes ahead to extend the Yesa dam upwards by 30 metres, then this is what Solano's village will overlook - a vast artificial lake for a few months of the year and soggy, brown scrubland for the rest.

Three other villages, home to about 1,500 people, will disappear altogether, along with two Romanesque churches, an Iron Age necropolis and up to 18 miles of the ancient pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, which has been declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco. In all, 22 miles of the valley will be lost to flood waters. Aragon has already lost around 300 villages to dams.

'Imagine,' Solano says, as we cross the River Aragon by his village, 'if this goes ahead, this bridge will be under 20 metres of water.' In the nearby village of Sigues, which will disappear under water, the weather vane on the 12th-century church is, presciently, a fish.

Without the reserves of water held back by the extended Yesa dam, the plan falls apart, so the government took the precaution of making what is known as the Water Pact with the government of Aragon. Yesa would be extended, they were told, so that more of Aragon could be irrigated. (Jaume Matas, the environment minister, insists that this remains the case, and that water from Yesa will not be used to boost the flow of the Ebro.)

The mastermind behind the pact was the aptly named Antonio Aragon, the former head of public works in neighbouring Navarra and president of the Confederacion Hidrografica del Ebro, an organisation that dedicates much of its energies to convincing local politicians of the virtue of building more dams. The line between vested interest and what the Spanish call cu–adismo (brother-in-lawism) is difficult to draw, but it runs right through the National Water Plan. For example, the province of Valencia will be a principal beneficiary of the diverted water. The president of Valencia, Eduardo Zaplana, is a close friend of Jaume Matas, and their wives have been friends since childhood.

Now that the people of Aragon know - after the pact was signed - about the plan to divert the Ebro, few believe that more than a token amount of water will go to irrigate Aragon. And as Solano says, 'Why more irrigation? To grow what? Brussels is already paying thousands of farmers not to grow anything.' Asked about the opposition in Aragon, Matas holds up the pact and says it is the government's duty to honour it.

Matas did, to his credit, seek specialist advice from hydrologists and environmentalists. Altogether, 82 specialists were consulted and asked to submit reports. However, Matas decided not to publish their findings - he says this was at the scientists' behest. Disappointed, and perhaps suspicious, 62 of those consulted held a meeting in Madrid to compare notes. All but one had advised the minister not to go ahead with the plan.

Matas says that they were overwhelmingly in favour and that the plan was modified in accordance with their advice. Pressed on why 150 leading scientists had signed a declaration against the plan, which was presented to the European parliament, he replies that 'the scientists are preoccupied with the future, while we are concerned with the present'.

He says there has been a public debate, which is true, but only in so far as the government says that this is what is going to happen because it's for the best, leaving people to grumble or to march in the street. Politicians get an easy ride from the Spanish press: there is no John Humphrys or Kirsty Wark to give them an on-air grilling. Madrid's perceived high-handedness was exemplified by the agriculture minister Miguel Arias Cañete, who said on television shortly after his party was re-elected in 2000 that the plan would be approved 'por cojones' - that is, whether people liked it or not. He added that the legislation would pass through parliament 'like a military parade'. 'Two things have happened,' said Cañete. 'We have an absolute majority, and we lost in Aragon.'

The plan is being sold to the Spanish people as an act of solidarity, of the haves - in terms of water - giving to the have-nots. But Javier Martinez Gil, professor of hydrology at Zaragoza university, wants to know who is going thirsty in Spain. He says nobody, there is no lack of water in Spain, and points out that while 85% of the nation's water is used for agriculture, as much as 50% of this is lost through bad management and antiquated ideas about irrigation. As for Murcia needing drinking water, who, he asks, drinks tap water on the coast? Virtually everyone drinks bottled water, much of which also comes from the Pyrenees. 'Taking water to the Mediterranean is like giving drugs to a drug addict,' says Martinez. 'Very little actually arrives because there are no controls.'

Perhaps anxious that Brussels will withhold funding on environmental grounds, the government's claims about the plan have become less extravagant. Matas now says that there is to be no new irrigation, that the water transferred from the Ebro is not to create new farms or housing developments but only to 'make up the shortfall' in demand in those areas where there is a problem. How this shortfall is defined is not clear; Matas merely states that half the water is for drinking and half for agriculture and industry.

Arrojo says the government has deliberately manipulated the figures so it will appear that the water is for irrigation, whereas the only thing it is likely to end up irrigating is a golf course. Studies suggest that the price of the diverted water will be three times the government's estimates and thus far too costly for agriculture. Besides, with the water in the private or semi-private hands of the 'state water companies', they will be able to charge what they like. The true purpose of the scheme, opponents claim, is to develop Spain's southeast coast for tourism, and schemes for a dozen golf courses in southern Valencia are already in the pipeline. This is why the governments of Murcia and Valencia welcome it, although many people from both regions have joined the campaign to halt the plan. Matas dismisses these claims, saying that the amount of water consumed by coastal developments and golf courses is so small as to be irrelevant.

It is estimated that, within 20 years, up to 6m non-Spanish Europeans will be in semi-permanent residence on Spain's Mediterranean coast. That's a lot of swimming pools. Says Martinez: 'Already, 25% of the rural population of Majorca is German.' This is not xenophobia so much as a feeling among many Spaniards that the unfettered urbanisation of the Mediterranean - often to the detriment of the interior as well - must stop. To grasp the strength of feeling this evokes, one has to understand the Spaniards' passionate attachment to what they call mi tierra - my land. The industrial revolution and the internal migration it provoked is only 50 years old in Spain, and people retain a strong sense of their origins in rural or semi-rural parts of the country.

With regard to the National Water Plan, this sense of a violation of la tierra fuels the protest movement in those areas most affected by it; but a broader sentiment against a Spain of second homes and golf courses has brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets of Madrid, Zaragoza and Barcelona to demand that the plan be scrapped. On March 10, up to 400,000 people from all over Spain joined a protest march in Barcelona.

It is a remarkable movement, uniting farmers and fishermen with scientists and environmentalists in a campaign whose emotional force is strengthened by the quality and hard-headedness of its scientific argument. It also reflects a growing realisation that, 27 years after Franco's death, democracy should consist of more than a five-yearly trip to the ballot box. People are demanding a voice, the more so as the Popular-party government, secure in its absolute majority, is exhibiting authoritarian tendencies like those of the dictatorship from which it is descended.

Asked if the scale of the protest was not of some concern to his government, Matas said that of course people were angry, especially those from the delta and Aragon, because they felt abandoned by the socialists during their 13 years in government. However, nobody was taking to the streets then, and besides, Matas's Popular party deposed the Socialists six years ago. Matas says: 'We understand their problems and why they are angry. The National Water Plan is going to solve those problems.' He adds: 'This plan isn't against anyone's interests, it is a solution for everyone.'

The government turned the plan into an issue of loyalty. It condemns its opponents, saying they are putting their interests above those of the nation, and derides scientists such as Martinez and Arrojo as misguided. Feeling that the government is not listening, the movement against the plan focused its attention on Brussels, whose funding is key. Were the government to fund the scheme out of its own resources, it would - under its own legislation - have to recover the costs, thus making it vastly less profitable and attractive to investors. Without European Union funds, it is unlikely that the most controversial part of the plan - the diversion of the Ebro - would go ahead.With this in mind, opponents organised a Blue March last summer, starting in Tortosa and arriving in Brussels two months later. As well as bringing the issue to the attention of people en route, it raised its profile within the EU.

To win their argument they need to show that the plan does not conform to EU guidelines on sustainability. What does this mean? 'Well, you can get by with one kidney or one testicle,' jokes Martinez. 'It's sustainable, but it's not something you'd choose. But in terms of the environment it means causing irreversible damage.'Which brings us to the Ebro delta. The delta is one of Europe's most important wetlands and a key breeding and migratory site for birds, including cattle egrets and little egrets, spoonbills, flamingos, purple gallinules and Audouin's gulls. If water is seen as money, then water flowing into the sea is money going to waste.

But the river water nurtures the delta fishing industry and its vast mussel farms. Dams upstream have already caused the delta to sink, and have deprived it of nutrients that would usually come down river and are vital to the future of both fishing and rice-growing in the area. A further loss of fresh water, combined with rising sea levels, could lead to the salination of the entire zone. Ironically, given the purpose of the National Water Plan, there are people in the delta who are without clean drinking water during the summer months.

In the natural course of things, explains Manolo Tomas, for 10 months of the year the river barely reaches the sea, and the mouth of the river is pushed back by salt water. But for two months the river's strong flow pushes the sea back, depositing crucial sediments and maintaining the balance between fresh and salt water. Studies assert that the combination of further dams and draining off water for canals will kill off the delta, along with its specialised ecology. On the contrary, says Matas, the plan will rescue the delta from decline.

In the opinion of Martinez and most of his fellow hydrologists, there is plenty of water in Spain and the problem is not one of supply but of management (far from dying of thirst, per capita, water consumption in Spain is double the world average). For example, Valencia, one of the regions that will benefit from the scheme, has plentiful underground water - as does much of Spain - but it has been polluted by industry. Rather than confront the polluters, they say, the government prefers to bring in more water from elsewhere.

The scheme's opponents call for what they term a 'new culture of water', in which water is not seen as a commodity but as a resource that has an aesthetic as well as an economic value. A river is beautiful - you can swim or fish in it, or simply sit on its banks, whereas a dammed river is ugly and often dangerous. Furthermore, they say it is erroneous to claim that everyone has a right to have access to as much water as they want, and that rivers should not be dammed and diverted and the countryside vandalised simply because it is commercially viable to do so.

For now, Solano can stand in the Calle Luis Buñuel and look out over his bleak but beautiful valley. 'We've been fighting this for 20 years,' he says. 'But we are weak. Only 18,000 people live in this area, so there are no votes to be won or lost. All we can do is fight. And hope. You're a man of the world, but I'm from here, from Artieda. If you lose your job, eventually you'll find another one. If I lose this, I lose everything. This is my life.'


Asociación Río Aragón-COAGRET