This website aims to tell the story of how a hegemonic discourse favorable towards desalination emerged and installed itself in Barcelona, and Catalonia in general, and structured the perception of the waterscape and cognitive maps of the water users in the moment of its inception. Visitors can see how the controversy (and the lack of it) around desalination in Barcelona unfolded and developed through the exploration of crucial moments along the timeline, key actors and a discursive analysis of excerpts from news articles. We intend to show the particularities of the Catalan case vis à vis desalination, touching upon all its inherent complexities entrenched in socio-cultural and identity politics, which differentiated it from other desalination controversies in Spain.
Before there was such an enthusiasm for desalination, there were other water discourses that existed in Spain, especially the one of the Ebro river diversion that had much more importance than desalination during the 20th century. So, why has desalination supplanted this hegemonic discourse and at which particular moment? Which actors have propagated the desalination discourse rather than the river diversion discourse? More specifically, which politicians, researchers, industrial actors and international financial institutions have an interest (to invest) in desalination?
The Ebro River, Spain Credits: NASA Earth Observatory
A double narrative can be observed in the Catalan case around desalination as a solution for water scarcity. On the one hand we observe the emergence of sea water desalination as a financial investment project in Barcelona. Indeed, we can observe that desalination is portrayed and discursively constructed as the “perfect solution” to address the water scarcity problem in the region, as it circumvented the environmental, political, and socio-ecological problems related to traditional water supply options like inter-basin water transfers and dams, providing an alternative source of water that appeared to be endless, environmentally sensitive and conflict-free. By increasing the supply side, desalination seems like a panacea to the problem of droughts, while leaving structural issues such as the root causes of the water shortage problem in Barcelona untouched. The quintessential question is where does the water shortage in Barcelona come from? Is it from the overuse of households? Or from the tourism industry or other industrial sectors which are present in the urban region?
On the other hand, rooted on cultural meanings and Catalan nationalism represented in the essence of the Ebro river and its unique deltaic ecosystem, a deterministic dichotomy emerged between damaging the Ebro river through a river transfer or desalination. This binary logic shows that the political discourse, which existed in Catalonia has been consciously constructed as a ‘bilateral solution’: It was either desalination or the Ebro river diversion, and that all other alternatives were ‘black boxed’ by political-economic and financial forces that consider desalination as the water supply solution rather than working on water demand solutions or other water alternatives, such as harvesting or reclaimed waters. Nevertheless, it must not be undermined by the fact that Barcelona has made great efforts to reduce water consumption levels and currently is one of the cities with the lowest levels in Europe.
Yet, if we dive in a bit deeper and look at the link with Catalan identity, we find there is great symbolism in the Ebro river. The lands of the Ebro Delta are a bastion of Catalan nationalism and the river is a source of identity in the catalan collective imaginary rooted in historical processes. Here we can find explanations of why Barcelona preferred importing water from Marseille when there was a drought in 2008 rather than transferring it from the Ebro river. The Ebro river discursively emerges as an “untouchable” or even sacred ‘hybrid’ actor that must be protected from water transfers promoted by an alienated Spanish conservative elite and which brought back memories of similar processes imposed under the Franco dictatorship. It is exactly this symbolic force and hegemonic discourse of the Ebro river that awakens the collective action against the Ebro diversion and advocates for desalination as a “lesser evil” that would allow for the conservation of the Ebro, its deltaic ecosystem and its economy.
Demonstrators protesting against the new hydrological project of the Ebro Delta
Credits: Jordi Cotrina
So, why has there been no controversy and active debate about sea water desalination in Barcelona? How did the discourse surrounding desalination become hegemonic and how did the actors narrow the perceptions of Barcelona’s water scarcity problem and alternative solutions? What underlying beliefs made its emergence and dominance possible? Who propagated it and by which means? Who is benefiting from the desalination discourse? In order to answer the questions, we have looked at the distribution of power within the desalination discourse. The desalination discourse easily and consensually imposed itself as the solution in a context in which both environmentalists, civil society, and scientists were advocating for this option to protect the delta. At the same time, political leaders and financial institutions had an interest in increasing water supply in the Barcelona region. In fact, they had the economic and political power to impose this reading on the Catalan waterscape. There was a participatory process of co-construction that desalination was the best option, grounded on historical and identity politics. More recently, however, critical questions have been raised about the necessity of a desalination plant as a contingency resource, which operates at minimal levels and under high costs for society (both in economic and environmental terms), especially when Barcelona’s efforts to reduce water consumption levels are considered.
Through this website, we seek to provide a holistic understanding of the development of the desalination discourse in Barcelona. A context-specific analysis allows us to understand how the dominant narrative emerges embedded in identity politics and cultural meanings, and is functional to economic and political interests. Also, we critically investigate the underlying interpretive schemes and conceptual paradigms in which the main actors have evolved and socially embedded the technology. We conclude that rather than being a “panacea” to the water scarcity problem in Barcelona, one should understand the sea water desalination plant as a socio-ecological, technical-managerial, and inherently contradictory “fix” as well as investment project! Yes, desalination does produce more water, but also it raises wider socio-ecological issues.