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Water: Industries get hot under the collarby Leslie Crawford, Financial Times 21 June 2007, Special Report on Spain, page 5.
The fiercest political battles in Spain are not between left and right, or between Basque and Catalan nationalists and Madrid, but between those who have water and those who do not.
During 2004 and 2005, Spain experienced its worst drought on record. Dams and riverbeds in the south dried up. Water was rationed in Mediterranean holiday resorts. Some regions, such as Catalonia, banned irrigation.
Scientists predict that, as a result of global warming, most of Spain will be a desert in 50 years' time. Droughts like the one experienced in 2004-5 will become more common.
Could water shortages become a limiting factor in Spain's economic development? Antonio Serrano, an academic in charge of water policy at the ministry of environment, is an optimist. He believes that with the right programmes - desalination plants for the coast, modern irrigation techniques for farming - and the right pricing incentives, water will not be a constraint on future growth.
The question, therefore, is how fast Spain can put these policies in place. There is not much time to lose: Spain's population is growing rapidly - up 10 per cent in five years to 45m people - as a result of immigration. The tourist industry, heavily concentrated on the Mediterranean coast, also consumes large amounts of water. Agriculture uses the most of all, accounting for two-thirds of water consumption in Spain.
There are 3.8m hectares under irrigation, and in most of Spain this means opening the sluice gates to flood fields - an incredibly wasteful use of a scarce resource. The European Union's Common Agricultural Policy exacerbates the problem by subsidising Spanish farmers to produce thirsty crops such as maize and sugar beat.
The year 2006 was another dry one, and the lack of water set town against countryside, farmers against golf resorts, and the wet north against the dry south of Spain. "Why should we ration water in Madrid, when farmers still irrigate by flooding their fields?" asked Esperanza Aguirre, president of the greater Madrid region. As a result of immigration and rapid economic growth, the population of Madrid and its satellite towns has expanded from 5m to 6.8m in the past 10 years - exacerbating the conflict over water in the dry meseta of central Spain.
Regions sharing the same river basins - particularly those further downstream - were (and still are) at loggerheads over how to apportion water between them. Should cities have priority over the countryside? Which crops should be protected? Should the government raise prices sharply to encourage savings?
The drought hit Spain only months after a new Socialist government, elected in March 2004, scrapped a mammoth Euro 24bn project to pump water from the River Ebro, in northern Spain, more than 1,000km south to Murcia, Almería and Alicante - semi-desert regions where new holiday resorts compete for water with big hydroponic farming businesses.
José María Aznar, the former prime minister, billed the National Water Plan as an "act of solidarity" between the wet north and the dry south of Spain. But the project was controversial from the start.
The government suppressed hundreds of reports from scientists and economists that questioned its environmental impact and economic rationality - the scientists published their findings on the web.
The cost of pumping water over such long distances would be prohibitive, the economists wrote; vast quantities would be lost to evaporation, while the damage to the Ebro delta - a protected nature reserve that is under stress because so much water is already pumped out of the river - would be irreversible, the scientists said.
In its stead, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's government is building 28 desalination plants to supply water to Spain's thirsty Mediterranean provinces. The Socialist administration has also moved to halt the unfettered construction of holiday resorts.
It is suing the regional government of Valencia for authorising the construction of some 15,000 holiday homes without the go-ahead from the River Jucar Water Board.
By law, all residential developments in Spain need the prior approval of a water board to ensure new homes will be supplied with water. In practice, water boards are often ignored.
During the construction boom of the past seven years, municipal councils vied with each other to attract the biggest real estate projects, marinas and golf resorts. In some coastal areas, new property owners have sometimes taken possession of their new homes, only to find there is no running water - and no obligation on the part of municipal authorities to provide it - because their homes were built without water board permits.
In Madrid, Mr Serrano says the government is clamping down on illegal building projects. "We are reinforcing the law," he says. "Builders will have to secure water supplies before being allowed to start housing projects." Mr Serrano's other priority is to get Spaniards, particularly farmers, to save water. The government is spending Euro 2bn on a "shock plan" to modernise irrigation. He hopes this will save about 5 per cent of the water consumed by agriculture.
Nevertheless, he says much will depend on the EU's planned changes to the Common Agricultural Policy. Land under irrigation has increased by 30 per cent since Spain joined the EU in 1986. Up to now, EU subsidies have been linked to the production of maize, sugar beat and other crops. But the policy is changing and most EU farm aid will now be paid directly to farmers, irrespective of what they produce. "Maybe, when subsidies are decoupled from production, the land under irrigation will fall," Mr Serrano says.
In many regions, however, the consumption of water will continue to be subsidised, Mr Serrano says. Raising prices to reflect the real cost of supplying an increasingly scarce resource would be deeply unpopular. Mr Zapatero, who is standing for re-election next year, is unlikely to tackle the pricing problem any time soon.