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Europe and Water : The Case of the Iberian Peninsula

The Iberian peninsula is in hydrological terms an autonomous region. No water is brought into or out of this region, while nearly half of its overall surface is comprised of catchment areas shared by Portugal and Spain. What water policies are carried out by these two countries?

Nine-tenths of the Iberian peninsula is located in the Mediterranean climate zone, characterised by hot, dry summers which, in the Iberian case, are reinforced by the continental effects of this large land mass. Nonetheless, low population densities mean that theoretical per capita water resources here are higher than European nations like Belgium, Germany, or the United Kingdom. Spain suffered water shortages, however, in the early 1990's as a result of three drought years in a row, and since then has sought to bolster water security through a controversial plan that has become a source of significant political friction1.

The river flow of Iberia's major rivers show a worrisome decrease since the first half of the 20th century, even after taking into account the wide annual fluctuations characteristic of this type of climate. Causes are many and include variations in climate cycles or the decrease in runoff due to reforestation, but the principal cause remains the considerable extension of irrigation during the second half of the 20th century.

Among the different uses of water, one needs no reminder of the huge amounts consumed by agriculture. Its share gets even bigger when calculated in terms of net loss, since intense evaporation lowers the total amount fed back into the system. Water policy since the 19th century has focused on the necessity of water for agriculture and for electric power generation, but supply-driven water management has become the rule under mounting pressure from public authorities, farmers, hydroelectric concerns, and engineers. Spain is the world record holder in number of dams per square kilometer or per capita. The national hydrologic plan adopted in 2001 calls for the construction of more than a hundred new dams and the annual transfer of a cubic kilometer of water from the lower Ebre River for distribution along the Mediterranean coast. Negative environmental impact is heavy, and political effects could be even heavier. Autonomous regions that are seen as sources of surplus refuse to give up what they consider their most valuable resource. The project to transfer 400 hm3 of water per year from the Rhone to Barcelona is a way of not tapping into equivalent amounts stockpiled by the Rialb Dam, much closer to Barcelona but set aside for the extension of irrigation.

Portugal is understandably concerned about the decrease in water flowing from Spain (more than 50% drop for the Guadiana River) and the drop in water quality. But its response is another example of obsolete water policy: Europe's largest dam, to be built at Alqueva on the Guadiana River, Iberia's least abundant and most inconstant river.

Not only does this decision seem to be running away from the problem, but it is in direct contradiction with Europe's framework directives on water resource management. Even worse, the proposed dam risks being the first point in a European water network that would treat water as a simple commercial quantity without regard for its environmental or heritage values. A pro-dam pressure group composed of construction companies, water producers, and certain political interests is very active. Good public information is needed in this area since European water management can be, like the tongue for Aesop, “the best and the worst of all things”.




Michel Drain Mothré
Senior scientist at the CNRS
Mutations des Territoires en Europe
CNRS–Université Montpellier III

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