water supply


water supply
   Water is critical for domestic consumption and for sustaining economic activity in Spain, particularly agriculture, which accounts for 80 percent of water demand. Increasing demand, coupled with periods of drought, has led to the realization that water is a scarce resource requiring careful management: ensuring supplies, regulating demand, balancing conflicting uses, and monitoring environmental impact.
   There are significant variations in water supply. In the north of Spain there is a surplus, with average annual precipitation in excess of 1,000 mm a year. Across the rest of Spain there is a deficit, owing to low annual average precipitation (varying from less than 600 mm to true desert conditions in the south-east) and substantial water loss resulting from high summer temperatures. Actual precipitation varies from year to year, including droughts where in successive years annual precipitation falls below the average. One such drought occurred between 1990 and 1995, creating serious social, economic and political problems. Crop yields and agricultural employment fell; costs of electricity generation rose as supply was lost from low-cost hydroelectric plant; drinking water was rationed; and the governments of the autonomous communities argued over water resources. Water demand has risen with population growth, the rise in tourism and the increased emphasis on irrigated agriculture. Moreover, these three factors have been most prominent outside of the north of Spain, creating further imbalances in supply and demand.
   Responsibilities for water management are shared between the state, regional governments, local authorities and some private utilities. At the strategic level the regions are responsible for co-ordinating water developments. However, water management has developed around public river basin authorities (Confederaciones Hidrográficas), which often span different regions. River basin authorities tap surface and underground water supplies, store water underground or in reservoirs, transport water to areas of consumption and frequently treat the water ready for use. Local authorities are generally responsible for local distribution and supply to individual consumers. In Barcelona, water supply is in the hands of the largest water company in Spain, Aguas de Barcelona. More private and foreign capital will enter the industry as the business environment of water supply is liberalized.
   Development of water resources depends on the legal arrangements governing use. Until 1985 subterranean water was regarded as part of land ownership, while surface water belonged to the state. This enabled Spain to produce a national water policy, become a pioneer in the management of its rivers and to develop hydroelectric installations. But soaring demand, new pumping techniques and modern knowledge about the water cycle connecting underground and surface water made the old law obsolete. The new law of 1985 included underground water in the public domain (although it left existing wells in private ownership and protected the rights of well owners).
   Several critical issues are associated with water supply in Spain, principally that of ensuring supplies to people and industry. This embraces measures such as tapping new sources (including desalination schemes), reducing water losses and developing a national system of supply capable of transferring water from the north to the south. It also embraces the regulation of demand, through the introduction of water charges and critical scrutiny of intensive activities such as irrigated agriculture and golf courses. Other issues are environmental, including reducing water pollution, maintaining water flow in rivers, reducing flood hazards and avoiding desertification.
   See also: agriculture; economy; migration
   KEITH SALMON

Encyclopedia of contemporary Spanish culture. 2013.

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