“Catalonia is also part of Spain.” That statement came from an unexpected source in 2008. It was José Montilla, then acting-president of the Catalan regional government. Although Montilla is not known to be a fierce proponent of Catalan independence, that statement might sound a bit out of place.
José Montilla felt the urge to remind the central government of Catalonia’s status when Prime Minister Zapatero opposed water transfers from other regions, despite the fact that Barcelona’s water reservoirs were down to just over a quarter of their normal capacity. Rather than using domestic supplies to buoy Barcelona’s water supply, the city had to rely on water shipments via tankers from Tarragona and Marseille.
Domestic water transfers were the primary policy to supply Barcelona and southern Spain until 2004. For its part, however, Barcelona also overexploited the groundwater resources which led to the intrusion of seawater in the aquifers.
The new government turned to a water source right next door instead of looking for water transfers from the Ebre or the Rhône (France). It chose to focus on desalination plants.
One year after the 2008 drought, one of the biggest desalination plants of the Mediterranean basin opened near Barcelona. According to officials, the new plant was supposed to provide up to 24% of Barcelona’s water demand. However, the plant consumes so much energy that it couldn’t be used to its full capacity. The high consumption, high costs, and even higher CO2 emissions made further investment into this solution politically and socially untenable.
But that didn’t stop Barcelona from looking for other unconventional sources for the city’s water needs. South of Barcelona is one of the largest water reuse projects in the world. The wastewater reclamation plant in Barcelona re-injects water in the lower part of the Llobregat River to supply the ecological flow, supply water to wetlands in the river deltaic areas, and provide another source for irrigation. It will also supply the hydraulic barrier that was built to stop the salination of the Llobregat aquifer.
Besides stepping up the water infrastructure, the city also invested in communication campaigns around the issue of domestic water usage – 61% of water currently goes to domestic consumption. These campaigns are present in public spaces but also very much in schools.
The Catalan government and the city of Barcelona are actively engaged in resolving the water scarcity issue and don’t shy away from innovative technologies that are crucial for the post-carbon cities of tomorrow.
The sustainability of these massive investments comes into question, however, particularly because Barcelona’s residents don’t use the tap water and mostly buy bottles for their daily consumption. This is due to the bad taste and to the high cost of water – Barcelona is the most expensive city for water in Spain. In the 1990s, some 80.000 families protested and refused to pay their water bill. The reason behind that, is that the Catalan Water Agency draws half of its revenue from the taxes that are included in the bill.