The Ebro water battle is back

Diverting the Ebro River to southern Spain was the aim of the National Water Plan that José María Aznar wanted to carry out during his term of office ten years ago. Now, Mariano Rajoy and Agriculture Minister Miguel Arias Cañete hope to bring it back. People from the Ebro Delta are ready to fight the battle again.

Laura Fabregat

June 12, 2012 04:34 PM

Barcelona (CNA).- It all started in 2001, when the President of the Spanish Government, José María Aznar, who was leading the People’s Party (PP), approved the National Water Plan (NWP), with the support of the Centre-Right Catalan Nationalist Coalition (CIU). The main aim of the project was to bring water from the northern Ebro River to solve southern Spain’s water needs such as in the Valencia region, the Andalusian province of Almeria and the whole of Murcia, which are among the most arid areas of Spain. The plan was set to go ahead and construction work began to allow the diversion of water even against the wishes of the Ebro’s population.

Putting the NWP into practice was difficult due to the high cost involved. In addition, another controversial issue was studied: the possible private economic interests behind the point of transferring water to the arid South such as the promotion of luxury tourism around the Valencia and Andalusia coasts with new urbanizations and golf courses.

Demonstrations against the NWP rose up in different parts of Catalonia. The Platform for the Defence of the Ebro Delta (PDE) was consolidated to lead the protests in favour of the Ebro population. They pointed out that the project would hit the Delta environment, slowing down the economic development of the region and affecting the flora and fauna of the area.

Miguel Arias Cañete was the Agriculture, Food and Fisheries Minister in 2002. He asked the European Union (EU) for the amount of money that the government needed to carry out the plan, which refused to finance the plan considering it contrary to European policy on environment matters. Therefore, the project was not able to go ahead because of the lack of funding and it was definitively stopped when José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (from the Spanish Socialist Party) won the Spanish elections in 2004.

However the Ebro population is raising the alarm again due to the return to office of People’s Party President Mariano Rajoy and Arias Cañete back in charge of the Agriculture Ministry, which now also takes care of the Environment. Cañete has already mentioned his idea of carrying out a new NWP, with the singularity of it being a “gesture of solidarity”. Spanish Minister has not directly referred to the Ebro River although the proposal of moving a lower volume of Ebro’s flow is being floated.

Ebro’s minimum flow rate is reduced

This new process that affects the ecological flow has been included in the Water Plan of the district, also known as the Basin Plan (‘Pla de Conca’), by the Water Ebro Authority (‘Confederació Hidrològica de l’Ebre’ or CHE). Specifically, the average minimum flow for the final stretch of the Ebro River has been calculated at 106.9 m3/s, which is too small a number according to the Catalan Government and the PDE.

Several voices have already complained about the environmental flow’s proposal and have also emphasised its possible consequences. PDE announced that the reduction of the Ebro’s flow could suppose “the legal death of the Delta” because the salt water would remain stagnant and there would be a lack of sediment. The spokesman for the entity, Manolo Tomàs, added that “these flows are insufficient for the viability of predominant agricultural activity in the region and others like navigability”.

The Catalan Minister for Sustainability and Territory, Lluís Recoder, goes further and affirms that he is “afraid” of a possible proposal for diverting the Ebro River behind the idea of reducing the flow rate. “This new flow can be used to justify the diverting plan”, Recoder clarifies. Catalan Government’s Ebro delegate, Xavier Pallarès, also says that “we do not intend to put up with lower ecologic flows in an artificial way in order to make viable a covert diverting, we are firmly going to oppose the issue”.

“The unique positive aspect of the current scene is the opening of a process that allows claims to be submitted [to the CHE’s proposal] over six months”, states Ferran Bel, the Mayor of Tortosa, which is the main city of the Ebro Delta area. Certainly, opponents have six months to look through the proposal in great detail and to make possible complaints.

The plenary meeting which has already taken place at the Tortosa council is unanimously set against the ecologic flow process. In the declaration, all political groups consider that the proposal is “too insufficient” and also ask for the continued defense of the flow system drawn up by the Sustainability of Ebro Region Commission (Comissió per a la Sostenibilitat de les Terres de l’Ebre). 

Furthermore, the PDE has appealed for an active protest against the CHE plan by all institutions and entities from the Ebro region. “If the current situation does not reach a solution, the future of the Ebro River, the Delta and Ebro region could be in serious danger (…) It has to be reconsidered or it will be a catastrophe”, declares Manolo Tomàs. “The message must be that it will be difficult to eliminate the Ebro River and the Delta because there are many people who will fight for its life”, finishes Tomàs.