On this page you will find a chronology of water management in the Barcelona area with special attention to the emergence of desalination.
To make your visit more pleasant, the events are detailed, sometimes illustrated and you can browse them using the arrow. You will also find quotes from interviews we have conducted with researchers or members of civil society, which we hope will help to clarify the relevance of the facts.
Do not hesitate to scroll, all the information is not visible at first glance.
Enjoy your visit!
Transcript of the chronology
1964: Construction of the First desalination plant in Spain
The first desalination technology in Spain was built in Lanzarote (Canary Islands).
April 26th, 1973: first law for desalination in Spain
First law regulating desalination facilities for seawater or brackish water on a national level and the utilization of desalted water for the Canary Islands on 26 April. (1)
1975: End of Francos’ dictatorship
In 1936, after three years of fratricide civil war, the Nationalist Forces defeated the Second Spanish Republic and the general Francisco Franco seized power in Spain. The dictatorship lasted for 36 years and came to an end after Franco’s death in 1975. Waterways during the regime saw major transformations under immense hydraulic infrastructure projects constructed in record timing. The most famous was the Tajo-Segura river transfer, inaugurated in 1979. It was also during Franco’s era that the Ter reservoir and Ter-Lobregat transfer to supply the city of Barcelona took place, in 1966 (XXIV) .
The end of Franco's dictatorship marks the end of the hydraulic paradigm, defined as the set of centralized, state-directed approaches to water management that rely on large infrastructures such as dams and water transfers to regulate rivers and increase water availability.
The Spanish transition to democracy begins after the death of the dictator. A parliamentary monarchy under the king Juan Carlos I was consolidated and Adolfo Suárez was elected prime minister to consolidate the transition to democracy.
1995: Royal decree 1327/1995: first regulation on desalinated water in the mainland considering this water as public
The first regulation on desalinated water (Royal Decree 1327/1995) approved under the socilost leadership of the PSOE, considers this water as public water because it is part of the public water resources and is included in the same cycle as groundwater. (6)
December 13rd 1999: Law 46/1999
Establish desalinated water as private property as long as it’s in the desalination plant. Promoted by the centre-right Popular People’s Party (PP) government. It’s an attempt to stimulate the growth of desalination within private companies with the water becoming private property and could therefore be sold. (1)(6)
The privatization of the water sector took place in Spain under the governments of the two main parties with both political and economic arguments. The state was unable to continue financing large-scale hydraulic development, especially when forced by European standards, and to favor mercantilization and transfer to the market. This changeover was also motivated by the exhaustion of the traditional hydraulic paradigm that went hand in hand with the end of the Franco regime. The deliberate, calculated and partial withdrawal of the state did not lead to the abandonment of hydraulic planning as an economic policy instrument, but rather to a transfer of capital expenditure requirements to the private sector while retaining a role of strategic regulatory control. (11)
2000: EU Water Framework Directive (WFD)
The Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and the Council seeks to promote the sustainable use and long-term protection of water bodies. Transfer projects do not contradict the WFD principles, although desalination and wastewater reuse policies are not particularly supported by the directive either. European policies aim to reach sustainability irrespective of the strategies adopted. (XXVIII)
2001: Second National Hydrological Plan (SNHP) initiated by the conservative government led by Partido Popular (PP)
Under the second government of Aznar (2000-2004), the conservative party PP favoured transfer policies; its commitment is clearly shown in the 2001 National Hydrological Plan (NHP), where the Ebro River transfer was the principal measure. However, there have already been previous attempts to build water transfers, as exemplified by the (failed) water transfer Rhône-Barcelona Project initiated in 1995. The Rhône-Barcelona large infrastructure project was promoted by the Catalan regional government to transfer water from the Rhône River in France to Barcelona to supply the city with water. With regards to the SNH, desalination projects were regarded as complementary actions. (4) This project was to connect the Ebro, Júcar, Segura and Sur basins, distributing water all along the east coast of Spain, which is the driest area of the country. A maximum yearly flow of 1050 hm3 was planned.(4)
Conflicts have arisen and are mainly concentrated in projects located in the southern basins whose territory is shared by different regions. This is especially clear in the Ebro–South East Basins project. In any event, rather than geographical or physical conditions, arguments are clearly based on adverse political and territorial positions (4)
2004: Rejection of the Second National Hydraulic Plan & Adaptation of the AGUA program
Under the first government of Zapatero, the centre-left Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE) endorses huge Investments in desalination plants along the Mediterranean coast (1). The suspension of the Second National Hydraulic Plan and the cancellation of the Ebro transfer project gave rise to the alternative AGUA program: a massive, large-scale development of desalination plants along the Mediterranean coast. (2) These strategies became the cornerstone of Spanish water policies during the period, pushing transfers off the political agenda. (4)
On June 22nd, 2005, Law 11/2005 was promoted by the socialist party PSOE and formally approved. A new paradigm in water policy emerged leading to the abandonment of the Ebro transfer (12). Desalinated water is made public again, trial to avoid desalination as a business and return to the administrative concession system. (1)
“The desalination plant will start operating in 2009 and will be able to treat 60 billion liters a year, 20% of the water currently supplied to the Barcelona metropolitan area” (El Pais, 2006)
During its second term, the socialist government of Zapatero (2004-2008) continued to endorse desalination as a cornucopia solution to the water scarcity problem in Barcelona. Winning a contract of 158 million euros, the consortium designs and builds the largest desalination plant in Europe for urban supply, capable of producing a maximum of 60hm3 per year using reverse osmosis technology (I) (II). It is part of the action of the program of alternative actions to the National Hydrological Plan to supply drinking water in the metropolitan region of Barcelona, while endorsing the requirement of the European Water Framework Directive (El Pais, 2006). The plant complements the Aigües Ter-Llobregat (ATLL) network (nowadays ATL)(V).
“The new plant will avoid "recurring crises" in the water supply” (Leonard Carcolé, Agbar's general director of water and sanitation in El Pais, 2006)
2007- 2008: Major drought hits Catalonia creating a situation of severe hydric stress. Extraordinary water supply solutions are taken.
At the beginning of 2008, due to an extraordinary drought that jeopardized the water supply in Barcelona, the Ter-Llobregat reservoirs dropped to 27,86% of their capacities. Restrictive measures for water use were introduced and new transfer solutions were proposed. It was agreed to bring resources from the tailwaters of the Ebro River, enlarging the existing facilities of the mini-transfer to Tarragona. All the legal conditions were established in the Royal Decree-law 3/2008. The transfer was to comprise 62 km of steel pipe and pumping stations. A maximum flow of 50 hm3 was expected to be carried. However, works in progress were suspended as a consequence of abundant rainfall during May and June. (4) During the summer ten ships brought imported water from Tarragona, Carboneras and Marseille to Barcelona. (II)
Ships bring water to Barcelona
20/07/2009: Inauguration of El Prat desalination plant
“The El Prat plant will play a key role in supplying Barcelona” (La Vanguardia, 2009).
The plant construction cost 230 million euros, of which 75% was paid by the European Union. (4) It has the potential to produce 180 million liters per day and cover 20% of drinking water consumption in Barcelona’s metropolitan area and neighbouring regions (Penedès, el Baix Llobregat, la Anoia, el Garraf, el Barcelonès, el Vallès Occidental, el Vallès Oriental y el Maresme). Overall, it has the capacity to provide water to 4.5 million people. (El País, 2009) (BBC, 2009) (II)(V).
The stages of the desalination process are: Seawater collection, pre-treatment, reverse osmosis system, post-treatment and remineralization, treated water storage and evacuation of waste brine. (VI)
“The desalinated flow will allow a new leap in the quality of water in Barcelona, now weighed down by the limited and salinized resources of the Llobregat, which give the water smell and taste.” (La Vanguardia, 2009)
The financial crisis of 2007-2008 influenced the construction of such infrastructure as a technological fix to solve water scarcity problems in Barcelona. It provided a way to use European funds in an investment in accordance with the European Framework Water Directive sustainability requirements, while at the same time boosting the Catalan economy by creating business opportunities to Spanish companies and the construction sector, deeply affected by the crisis.
21/07/2009: Water consumption drops drastically in Barcelona in 2 years
"Since 2007, water consumption has dropped by 16%. The people of Barcelona use three times less water than the citizens of Tokyo, and five times less than those of New York." (El Pais, 2009)
2010: El Prat desalination plant is awarded as ‘Desalination Plant of the Year’
“The El Prat desalination plant, considered the best in the world, wins the Global Water Awards” (I)
This is an illustration of one of the consequences of the Agua Program: the Spanish desalination industry has increased its competitiveness, placing it ahead of the majority of countries; the internationalization process of Spanish companies has grown exponentially thanks to the program. (4) Thus, several Spanish companies are among the 20 largest suppliers of desalinated water (1), desalination technology and expertise can be exported anywhere. (5) Finally, the call to regulate these activities and make them sufficiently robust in all their aspects (legal, sanitary, technological, etc.) has led to the approval of a pioneering state regulation in Spain. (6)
09/04/2012: The plant operates at 10%-15% of its capacity (La Vanguardia, 2012)
Purifying seawater to potable standard is a very costly process. Irrigators, distributors and ratepayers have been unwilling to pay for desalinated water, and indeed in almost all agricultural contexts desalination is simply not a cost-effective option. Thus, lower demand has resulted in new desalination facilities being operated consistently below capacity. (3)
“The limitations of the desalination plant have been evident since it came into operation because the energy cost of desalinating water is much higher than the cost of bringing it from the Ter and the Llobregat. For this reason, and since then, most of the plant has worked to a minimum.” (El punt d’avui, 2013)
2018: Reduction of Catalonia's average consumption
Constant reduction of Catalonia's average consumption per capita per day. Average consumption currently placed at 113 litres per person, one of the lowest in Europe. (XII)
2020: Special Drought Plan
Learning from the lessons of the 2008 drought, under the socialist government of Pedro Sánchez (2018-present), the Special Drought Plan was approved by the Agreement GOV / 1/2020 (VIII). The Plan sets measures in order to be better prepared to deal with new water stress situations so as to guarantee water supply and prevent critical, emergency scenarios.
Five progressive scenarios based on the state of the water reserves are determined under “the drought traffic light” that combine demand management and resource availability measures: (1) normality-blue (reservoirs at 60% of their capacity or higher), (2) pre-alert-green (below 60%), (3) alert-yellow (40%), (4) exceptionality-orange (25%) and (5) emergency-red (16%) (IX) (XII).
When water reserves are around 60%, under the normality scenario, some measures including the production of desalinated water and changes in the extraction regime, are activated to maintain water levels at the reservoirs as long as possible. When the yellow-alert (40% reserves) is activated, the production of desalinated water increases to 50-75%. At the orange-exceptionality (25% reserves) and red-emergency(15% reserves) levels, desalinated water increases to 75-100% (X). The three states of hydrological drought (alert, exceptionality and emergency) include gradual measures to reduce water use (IX).