April 25, 2006

Spain’s Acuamed taps sea for clean water

By Julia Hayley

MADRID (Reuters) - Adrian Baltanas's job is to find 850
cubic hectometres of clean water -- and he has four years to do

As director general of Acuamed, a state company set up by
Spain's Socialist government, he has to find an alternative to
the previous conservative government's plan to divert water
from the Ebro river to Spain's parched southeast.

Acuamed has a budget of 3 billion euros ($3.7 billion) and
instructions to carry out most of its program by 2009, Baltanas
told Reuters on Tuesday.

Half the water will come from desalination plants, and the
rest from recycling waste water and from savings achieved by
modernizing irrigation systems.

Spain's Mediterranean coast, which stretches from the
French border in the northeast to the Strait of Gibraltar in
the south, is naturally dry in contrast to the wet, fertile

It is also the home of much of the population, the
destination of many of the country's 50 million tourists and
where there is most sunshine for growing fruit and vegetables.

All that adds up to a big water shortage.

The previous government's water plan included many of the
modernization and recycling projects that Acuamed has taken on,
but centered on a controversial transfer of 1,000 cubic
hectometres of water from the Ebro, which flows into the sea
below Barcelona, via 900 km of pipeline.


The Socialist government scrapped the transfer and is
relying heavily instead on 26 new desalination plants.

Since it was set up last year, Acuamed has opened three
plants and local water boards in Murcia and Alicante have
contributed one and the extension of another, which are
included in Acuamed's plan.

Four more plants are under construction, one is out to
tender and nine are due to go to tender by the end of June. A
further seven are still in their planning stages and Spain's
big construction companies are positioning themselves to

"In general the plan is going down well in Brussels,"
Baltanas said. European Union approval is needed for the bigger
plants before releasing funds, which Baltanas said should total
550 million euros for the water plan as a whole.


An engineer with a long career specializing in water
resources, Baltanas is quick to counter potential environmental
and energy objections to desalination.

"The brine discharge is the key to a project's
environmental impact and there are various solutions," he said.

For example, where there are meadows of Posidonia grass,
which provide homes for numerous species of fish in the
Mediterranean, the plant will divert its salty water further
out to sea, or dilute it first by adding more seawater.

The amount of electricity required for the process is
falling as technology improves and the Environment Ministry is
planning to build a number of extra renewable energy plants to
cover what is used in desalination, Baltanas said.

"modernization of irrigation will also contribute by
reducing the amount of electricity used in pumping."

Longer term, he says the days of water-intensive types of
agriculture are numbered, while for the fruit and vegetable
greenhouses that have spread across the southeastern region of
Almeria, water at 30 cents a cubic meter is a marginal cost.

The cost of producing desalinated water is 50 cents a cubic
meter and Acuamed is offering to sell it to farmers at 30
cents, plus whatever it costs to transport it to where they
need it.

"Water for golf courses or for human consumption will not
be subsidized," he said.

In the coming decades the pressure on Spain's water
resources should ease, he said.

"The demands of urbanization and tourism will keep rising
but lower demand from agriculture, which is far greater, will
offset this."

Agriculture accounts for 68 percent of all the water used
in Spain, while human and industrial consumption makes up
another 18 percent and power stations the rest.