EU taxpayers should not fund Spain's water plan, group says

An environmental group is protesting the Spanish National Hydrological Plan and the Ebro River water transfer, which will redistribute water from one end of the country to the other.

Feb. 25, 2003 -- Despite protests and numerous complaints, Spain is pushing ahead with the Spanish National Hydrological Plan (SNHP) and its largest element, the Ebro River water transfer -- a massive undertaking that will redistribute water from one end of the country to the other.

The environmental organization World Wildlife Federation has put out a report contesting this action.

The flooding of the Ebro River this month added further fuel to the political fire, WWF said, stimulating calls to pipe "excess" water to the south instead of "losing" it to the sea.

"But this outdated plan goes against sustainable development, modern water and river basin management, and environmental protection -- all concepts enshrined in EU laws," WWF said. "This could even make subsidizing it with some €8 billion of EU money, which Spain plans to request from the European Commission, illegal."

Conceived in the 1950s and 60s, the SNHP aims to transfer huge amounts of water from so-called "water excess" regions in the northeast of Spain to "water deficit" regions in the southeast. To do this, a number of rivers, including the Ebro, will be re-routed and 889 infrastructure works, such as dams, reservoirs, pipelines, and canal networks, will be built throughout the country.

Independent analyses have concluded that the SNHP is not viable -- environmentally, economically, or socially. Transferring huge amounts of water will have extremely negative consequences for Spain's environment, including one of the country's most important wetlands, the Ebro delta.

The effects of climate change on water flow have not been properly assessed, WWF said. One study concluded that the plan's cost has been underestimated and that it will never return its investment. It will also take water away from the poorer north to the richer south where water is already overused and mismanaged.

More worryingly for the European Commission, which must decide whether to grant Spain's request for funds, is that the SNHP may be illegal under EU law.

By encouraging the idea that water is an unlimited resource, the SNHP goes against the sustainable development objective expressed in the EU Treaty and recalled in many laws and official texts.

Furthermore, under the Water Framework Directive, EU countries must prevent deterioration of water status and achieve "good ecological and chemical status" for freshwater ecosystems.

Not only does the SNHP clearly go against this, but to prove that the biggest element, the Ebro River transfer, is feasible, the Spanish government is using a study that completely fails to asses its compliance with the Water Framework Directive, WWF asserted.

The SNHP also goes against other pieces of EU environmental law. The plan will have significant impacts on species and habitats protected under EU legislation, including one-third of Spain's Important Bird Areas, more than one-quarter of Spain's Special Protection Areas, and dozens of species and habitats protected by the EU Habitats Directive.

In contravention of the Habitats and Bird Directives as well as the EU's Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive, no proper assessment was carried out on the infrastructure associated with the Ebro transfer before it became Spanish law.

Spain has earmarked EU Structural Funds for the SNHP -- funds whose regulations clearly state that: "all operations financed ... must comply with the provisions of the Treaty... and with Community policies and actions... [including] the rules on environmental protection and improvements."

None of this is new to the European Commission. The Commission's Environment Directorate-General has expressed serious concern about the SNHP's lack of compliance with many pieces of EU environmental legislation, with an "exchange of letters" between the office and the Spanish government ongoing since October 2000. The SNHP has also been raised at the European Parliament Petitions, and members of the Parliament's Environment Committee visited the Ebro Delta and Murcia earlier this month to investigate its impacts.

But these rounds of letters, meetings, and visits are serving more to heighten the political nature of the debate rather than get to the bottom of the real issue: determining whether the SNHP is in compliance with the EU Treaty, EU law, and the rules governing financial instruments and hence whether it can be funded with EU money.

Just one year ago, the European Parliament expressed "concern about unsustainable water management schemes across Europe" and called on the Commission "not to provide any EU funding for such projects."

Given the extremely negative consequences that the SNHP will have on the environment and the future of better water management in the EU and in EU accession countries, the European Commission must not provide any funding for the SNHP in its present form, WWF said. Only after revision and alignment to EU policies and environmental protection requirements -- in an open, transparent, and participatory manner with active involvement of Spanish civil society -- should funding the SNHP with tax payers' money be considered.

Source: World Wildlife Federation, www.panda.org

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