- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2008


With its cable cars and stylish architecture, Expo Zaragoza 2008 is the pride of this northeastern Spanish city, offering a feel-good theme of water and sustainable development until mid- September.

Boisterous summertime crowds pack sprawling exhibits showcasing liquid natural treasures, from European rivers and lakes to Middle Eastern oases. Local bands rock late into the night.

But there is a sobering message behind Zaragoza’s international fair — growing demand and the climate change wild card are making water an increasingly scarce and fought-after resource, experts say — not just in the Middle East or Africa, but also in places like Spain.

“National and regional governments in Spain have a problem when it comes to water, primarily because of the intensifying competition among agriculture, tourism and urban development, especially along with the coastal areas,” said Kevin Parris, an economist at the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in Paris.

“And also climate change, which suggests the problem of water scarcity, will increase in the next 20 to 30 years.”

Water scarcity is already a reality across Europe’s Mediterranean region. Cyprus, for example, is facing its worst water shortage in recent history, largely blamed on mismanagement and drought.

Climatologists and environmentalists predict climate change will intensify shortages, bringing ever sparser rainfalls between longer dry spells in the future.

But Europe overall presents a mixed picture, with changing climatic conditions possibly auguring heavy rains and flooding in northern and central areas.

“There will be more disparities — a lot less water in southern Europe and a lot more in northern Europe, where more rainfall is expected,” said Elise Buckle, a climate-change specialist at the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature.

In Spain, agriculture accounts for about 60 percent of the country’s national water consumption, with the booming tourism and industrial sectors sucking up much of the rest.

Those competing demands intensified earlier this year in the prosperous Catalonia region, hit by its worst drought in 60 years.

Barcelona’s regional government began importing drinking water from Marseille and drafting plans to divert water from the Ebro River, one of the country’s main tributaries. Then spring rains poured down, offering temporary respite.

Spain is scouting out longer-term options. Two desalination plants are up and running, and five more are in the works.

Together, they are expected to supply up to 20 percent of local drinking water in southern Spain in a few years, according to Frederic Certain, managing director for Veolia Agua, which is running one of the plants.

“Spain is the major country developing this technology in Europe,” Mr. Certain said.

Recycling wastewater for industrial and agricultural uses is also growing.

Visitors to a plant outside Zaragoza are greeted with the overpowering stench during the first phase of treatment, leaving no doubt about the water’s origins. By the last, however, the water is pristine enough to recharge local rivers. The leftover sludge is used to help power the plant.

But recycling and desalination are only partial solutions. Desalination also uses high amounts of energy, and environmentalists warn it may damage coastal ecosystems.

Rather, Spain needs a more fundamental overhaul of its water strategy, specialists say — ranging from removing generous water subsidies, particularly for agriculture, to scrapping velvet lawns and golf courses more suitable for northern climates and favoring less water-reliant crops.

“People are going to have to work harder to make sure water is used more effectively than before,” said Eduardo Mestre, an international water specialist coordinating scientific debates at the Zaragoza fair.

For now, competition for water is mounting — not only among vying industries, but also between water-rich and water-poor regions.

Debate, for example, has long been simmering in the Aragon region, where Zaragoza is located, about whether to transfer water from the Ebro River to the Mediterranean city of Valencia.

“We need the water for development projects here - not to build golf courses in Valencia,” said Carlos Kil, munching on a hot dog at the Zaragoza fair and airing a view shared by other locals.

“There is a crisis between Mediterranean regions with arid climates” and other regions in Spain’s northern and Atlantic coastal areas, said Victor Vinuales, head of Ecology and Development, a nongovernmental organization based in Zaragoza.

“We need to construct a social pact for water use in Spain based on water for all.”

An April report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted southern Europe overall would become hotter and dryer in the coming years, “threatening its waterways, hydropower, agricultural production and waterways.”

By contrast, climate change is likely to increase the risk of flooding in northern Europe, it said.

Weather related natural catastrophes in Europe, including flooding in Germany and the Alps, have doubled since 1990, according to another 2008 report by the German insurance group Munich RE.

It predicted precipitation would rise by 10 percent to 20 percent by the end of the century in regions like Switzerland and parts of central Europe, increasing the likelihood of severe rains and flooding.

“What we see is that the distribution of water is going to change,” said Peter Hoeppe, head of Munich RE’s risk-research unit.

“Especially in Britain — where 2007 produced the largest ever loss [about $6 billion] due to flooding in June and July, caused by torrential precipitation. We also see it in Germany.”

Europe is waking up to climate change, Mr. Hoeppe said. Demand for natural-catastrophe insurance, which covers floods but not droughts, is growing.

Mr. Mestre, the water specialist who is coordinating scientific debates at the Zaragoza fair, is sanguine, predicting new technologies and better management are the solutions.

“We have to take care of the little — or the abundant — amount of water that we have,” he said. “We have to make sure every drop counts.”

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