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In this section, we analyzed newspaper articles dating from 2006 until 2020 to detect how the desalination discourse produced and reproduced in Spanish and catalan media.


Taking as guidance Teun A. Van Dijk’s (2006) framework for critical discourse analysis, our overall strategy was to identify in pro-desalination articles a positive presentation of desalination while a deemphatization of its negative aspects. In the articles more critical to desalination, we looked for a negative presentation of desalination while an emphasis was made on highlighting the positive side of its alternatives (22).


Below you will find a timeline of the key quotes from all the articles analyzed that reveals how the discourse emerges and is crafted over time. In the last section, we analyze the main topics and discursive strategies detected in both sets of articles.

Pro- desalination news outlets


In general, we observe that in pro-desalination news articles, especially from the date the plant was inaugurated, the new plant is portrayed as a crucial contingency asset that will guarantee a greater water supply in times of drought, reducing the risk of recurring crisis. It is the price that needs to be paid to insure a backup of the resource. In the end desalination is considered much cheaper than not having it in severe water stress periods. Desalination is defined as “a guardian angel that covers the back of the system.”


In terms of rhetorical strategies and following Teun A. Van Dijk’s (2006) framework, we observe constant repetition of facts and numbers, leading to the emergence of number games relying on very specific and micro level data.  For the figure that the plant will treat 20% of the water consumed by in the city’s area, data is reproduced from that available at the desalination plant and Suez’s website (II). As for the reference to the fact that the plant will supply 4.5 million Catalans with better quality and better taste water, data comes from the Catalan Water Agency (ACA) and from the Government of Catalonia’s web site on the desalination plant (V). The use of evidence denotes authority, shows legitimacy and possession of the truth, yet this is also often based on a fragmented version of the truth and on biased models of information. For instance, the prediction that water demand in Barcelona will increase  a 10% by 2020, which was used to justify the need for a plant that will absorb this increase in consumption, was provided by Aïgues-The-Llobregat (ATLL), the private company that use to manage water supply and distribution in the city.  We also have current data that shows how consumption in Catalonia has decreased (XII). Moreover, it is also stated that in Catalonia every five years hits a drought, for which conventional resources are insufficient. Yet, Forero-Ortiz, Martínez-Gomariz and Monjo (2020), predict that while droughts will increase, they will happen every 20 years. 


Some fallacies, in the form of overgeneralization or exaggeration, are also identified, such as the fact that "A fifth of the water consumed will be from the sea". Moreover, from a syntactic approach, the use of conditional and future forms such as “will be able to treat “; “will supply”; “will play a key role”; “it can produce”; “ will be improved”, indicates also a fallacy in the sense that the future is considered as a certainty, and denotes authority in the way desalination is conceived and reproduced in public media as the final solution to water scarcity. 


Regarding the lexicon four key categories are identified. First, a securitization of the discourse favoring desalination is identified through the used security-related words: “guarantee”, “security”, “contingency”, “insurance”,  “a guardian angel” (metaphor). Second a hygienist framing using references to “quality”, “smell”, and “taste”, when making reference to desalinated water being better than the Llobregat’s. Third, we observe a discourse grounded on fear of potential drought through the use of words like “threat”, "recurring crises'', “dangerous”, “crisis”, and “risk”. Lastly, we find categories referring to an economic cost benefits analysis in references to “the price to pay”, “it is cheaper”, or “lowest possible cost”.


These articles also introduce some disclaimers to justify the controversial underutilization of the plant. They mention that although this “state-of-the-art facility” will potentially increase the bill, authorities will do it gradually and not that much. Morover, they indicate that as the desalination plant is a contingency resource, it cannot operate at its maximum capacity all the time because of economic reasons and has worked at only at 10% of its capacity  because reservoirs had been full and hence, it has been  unnecessary to resort to seawater.


The legal battle between Agbar and Acciona over the contract of ATLL for controlling water supply and distribution in the city, including the management of the desalination plant, dominated the public discourse on water and attracted medias’ attention between 2012-2019. The debate over desalination phases out and little attention is given to the actual need of a desalination plant, which further evidences how its need emerged and established as hegemonic and remained unchallenged. Although desalination per se is not questioned, this gives space to question the transparency of desalination actors (ATLL, Acciona, Suez) and their economic interests on lucrative water contracts and concessions.

Anti- desalination news outlets


Major themes in the less abundant media outlets criticizing desalination revolve around the fact that water consumption dropped in the city since the construction of the plant and that Barcelona uses less water than many big cities in the world. It is also pointed out that the desalination plant remains working under its 60h3/year capacity, which renders it very costly. 

In terms of rhetorical strategies, evidence and precise figures are also provided to ground accusations of underperformance of the plant, mainly due to high economic costs and high reservoirs levels, and of decreasing demand. In 2009 the plant was reported to work at 10% of its capacity, in 2010, it operated at 21% of its capacity, and in 2013, it could only work at 70%. Since it entered into service in 2009, it has not operated beyond 60% of its capacity. Other accusations are also made in regards to the bidding process of the desalination plant, considered as favorable to some interests and not respecting procurement principles. It is highlighted as well the high costs of the plant even for its minimal use and its high energy cost of desalinating in comparison to bringing water from the Ter and the Llobregat. Desalination plants are also included among a set of “excessive”, “unnecessary” and “underused” investments in infrastructures historically made by the Spanish government. With regards to lexicon, again cost-benefit analysis terms are used such as “high economic cost”, “cheaper”, “scam”. In addition, references to necessity and use are also present categories in the critical desalination discourse with words such as “undeused”, “not needed” or “minimum”.

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