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Crossing Continents Wednesday, 7 August, 2002, 13:00 GMT 14:00 UK
Spain's troubled waters
Protesters take to the water
Protesters make their point in the River Ebro
Julian Pettifer

A multi billion Euro scheme designed to divert water from Spain's rainy north to it's parched south is dividing the Spanish nation.

This has provoked over a million protesters to take to the streets in one of the greatest public displays of anti-government sentiment in Spain since the days of General Franco.

Vicente Sicilia
Vicente Sicilia's produce will undoubtedly benefit from the water flow
Water flowing south

Vicente Sicilia's company exports 60 million kilos of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and celery each year, much of which ends up in British supermarkets.

To him the Spanish government's National Hydrological Plan makes perfect sense.

"Here in Murcia we've got a wonderful climate, good land and hard working people. There's just one thing missing - water".

The idea is to siphon off "excess water" from the River Ebro, which springs in the Pyrenees and ends just south of Barcelona.

The course of the River Ebro
It involves building 118 dams and more than 1000km of canals and pipelines with an estimated price tag of 18bn Euro. One third of the money is supposed to come from European taxpayers.

The Spanish government says the water is needed for the agribusiness sector that covers much of southern Spain in a sea of polytunnels and plastic sheeting.

This thirsty greenhouse economy, which relies heavily on cheap immigrant labour, has brought new wealth to dry and formerly impoverished areas like Almeria and Murcia.

"We've created this great miracle in Murcia", says the region's president Luis Ramon Valcarcel. "Like the Israelis we've turned desert into fertile land and we shouldn't be punished for our achievement".

New strains on water resources

President Valcarcel, a fervent supporter of the National Hydrological Plan, also argues that the agribusiness sector plays a vital social role by providing immigrants from North Africa with stable work.

The Ebro Delta
There are claims of ecological damage in the Ebro Delta
A different type of immigrant has also been moving into southern Spain in recent years. The pensioner from northern Europe.

By 2020 there could be six million of them - mostly Brits and Germans - living in retirement along the Mediterranean coast. These people, along with seasonal tourists, consume huge quantities of water.

Think of all the swimming pools. And in summer time, the average golf course needs 3 million litres of water every night to keep it green.

Officially the water is not for tourism or urban development. But now that Spain's ruling party, the right wing Partido Popular, has liberalised water markets, many fear the farmers will simply sell off this precious resource to the highest bidder.

Carlos Ibanez
Delta rice farmer Ibanez fears for the bird life too
Yet President Valcarcel insists farmers in his region will not survive unless the plan goes ahead. He has no qualms about taking water from the Ebro.

"Every year the river just throws away 13,000 hectolitres into the Mediterranean Sea and we're just asking for a small part of that water which is wasted", he says.

Plans bring conservation problems too

Five hours drive to the north, people could not disagree more.

Carlos Ibanez, a rice farmer and conservationist in the Ebro Delta, worries that far too much water has already been taken out of the river in earlier dam building projects.

A million march in protest in the streets
With a reduced flow of water, less silt is being carried downstream. As a result, the Delta - a unique wetlands habitat attracting many species of bird - is slowly disappearing into the sea. Local fishermen complain that shellfish stocks have been badly affected by increased water salinity.

All over Tortosa, the main town in the Delta, you see slogans, reading: "No Transvasament! - No To the Water Transfer!"

And almost everywhere there's the logo of the anti National Hydrological Plan campaign - a pipe with a knot in it.

Maria Jesus, a local dentist, joined the Blue March to protest against the plan in Brussels. "I've never been interested in politics before but this crazy scheme made me so furious I just had to do something about it."

Jesus and Leonor Corral
Jesus and Leonor Corral: "Our son is buried in the cemetery here"
Further upstream, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the scheme is equally unpopular. Jesus and Leonor Corral will lose their home when their village, and the valley behind it, is flooded.

Three other villages, two Romanesque churches and part of the ancient pilgrims' route to Santiago de Compostela will also disappear under water.

"I don't care what they do but I will never leave my home", says Leonor sitting in her front room in the little village of Eres. Her husband Jesus adds: "Our son is buried in the cemetery here. I won't be able to bear it if we have to move his coffin".

Many say this water policy, which is causing so much distress, does not even make economic sense. It is seen as a scheme to provide lucrative contracts for Spain's powerful construction industry.

Ambitious scheme courts controversy

The Plataforma en Defensa De L'Ebre
The Plataforma en Defensa De L'Ebre tirelessly campaign against the plans
If the multi million Euro plan goes ahead, it will be the most ambitious infrastructure project in Europe.

But its critics see the plan as outdated, environmentally destructive and mired in scandal.

They say it is a project designed by and for the construction industry - an industry that has disturbingly close links to Spain's political elite.

Crossing Continents:
Spain's water politics will be broadcast on Thursday 8 August 2002 on BBC Radio 4 at 1100 BST.

Repeated on Monday 12 August 2002 on BBC Radio 4 at 2030 BST.

Reporter: Julian Pettifer
Producer: Lucy Ash
Editor: Maria Balinska

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