EU report slams Spain’s water management

European Parliament is worried about Ebro and Tajo rivers, and urges Mediterranean regions to use desalination plants

Manuel Planelles
A 2015 protest against the Tajo-Segura water transfer.
A 2015 protest against the Tajo-Segura water transfer.Nacho Izquierdo (EFE)

The European Parliament’s Petitions Committee (PETI) on Wednesday approved a tough report criticizing Spain’s management of its water.

The Spanish government’s policies aimed at sharing out the country’s limited resources “must be re-evaluated in line with the requisites” of new European water regulations, says the document.

Repealed by the Socialists

Vera Gutiérrez Calvo

On June 18, 2004, the administration of then-Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero rolled back an initiative by the previous Popular Party (PP) government to build a giant pipe and transfer water from the Aragonese section of the Ebro to the areas of Valencia, Murcia, Almería and Barcelona.

Environment Minister Cristina Narbona promised 20 new desalination plants to get water to these regions instead, though by 2009 only four had been built.

The transfer’s repeal earned praise from environmentalists, although later Zapatero’s government carried out other, smaller water transfers that were criticized by the same groups

The text also asks the European Commission (EC) to reject the new series of river management plans that Madrid has been approving in recent years.

The report was approved with 22 votes in favor and nine against – the latter from the European People’s Party.

The conclusions are the result of an inspection by 11 members of the European Parliament who personally visited the Ebro and Tajo rivers in February of this year.

The main sticking points have to do with the conservation of the so-called “environmental flows,” or the minimum water flow a river must have in order to conserve its ecosystems.

In the case of the Tajo River, the report notes that “the low levels established for the minimum flow in the Tajo Water Plan in [the municipalities of] Almoguera, Aranjuez, Toledo and Talavera de la Reina, together with a non-existent seasonal change in the river’s flow […] creates a constant alteration of the habitat for fish and other species within the community’s areas of interest, seriously affecting their conservation and failing to contribute to their recovery.”

A political fight

Water transfers have long been a source of conflict between Spanish regions and regional and central authorities. And with rains few and far between, and many reservoirs at historical lows, the hard-hit southeastern regions of the country are more keen than ever on maintaining the water transfers.

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Scope for water savings is substantial, especially in agriculture, where much irrigation water generates little added value. Successive governments have subsidized the use of more efficient irrigation technology at considerable budgetary cost, which has contributed to a modest reduction of water use in irrigation in recent years.

Following a change in power in the region of Castilla-La Mancha, which switched from the Popular Party (PP) to the Socialist Party (PSOE) in regional elections last year, the new administration launched a battle against the central government over the long-running Tajo-Segura water transfer project.

On Wednesday, the Socialists applauded the European decision, criticizing the fact that despite the Tajo’s low levels, Madrid is still authorizing water transfers from this river to Spain’s dry southeast.

The report also asks Spain to use the “network of desalination plants financed with European funds” to cover water demands on the Mediterranean coast. These plants were built, but are currently underutilized, because the price of water obtained in this way is higher, which dissuades farmers from using it.

A 2011 OECD report into Spain’s water management noted: “A participatory approach in water policy governance should be extended further to stakeholders beyond the irrigation community, to include more scientists or representatives of institutions protecting local ecosystems.

“Steps to better take into account water scarcity should include the progressive inclusion of market instruments, such as the tendering of water concessions as well as the elimination of some barriers to the exchange of such concessions among users,” the report concluded.

English version by Susana Urra.

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