Spanish government approves controversial water plan.

The Spanish Cabinet has given the go-ahead to the nation’s largest ever water project - to divert rivers cross-country to the parched south, despite wide-scale protests from environmentalists and local people.

The 4,000 billion peseta (£15.5 billion) National Hydraulic Plan, introduced by the Environment Ministry, was finally approved by the cabinet on 9 February after 15 years of deliberation and will now be submitted to parliament. By far the most controversial part of the plan, which aims to distribute water evenly throughout a country with huge regional imbalances, is the planned construction of 700 billion pesetas (£2.7 billion), 700 kilometre (434 mile) canal from the Ebro River basin in the north to the south-eastern Mediterranean region of Almería (see related story).

The Environment Ministry says that the vast majority of the money, however, will go towards enabling savings of water and managing the environmental management of the water system. It maintains that the plan is crucial to the future development of Spain and complies with environmental standards. The water project, especially the draining-off of 1,050 cubic hectometres of water from the Ebro, one of Spain’s biggest rivers, annually, is popular in southern arid regions like Almería and Murcia which stand to gain, but has attracted massive protest from northerners, including MPs, and environmentalists (see related story).

In October last year, about 250,000 protesters hit the streets of the Aragon capital of Zaragoza, which lies on the Ebro’s banks, fearing that farms and the interior of the land-locked region would be ruined. Ecologists in Action, Spain’s premier environmental group, is organising a mass rally against the plan for later this month in Barcelona, claiming that at least a third of the proposals will harm Natura 2000 sites, environmentally sensitive areas protected by EU law, ruining the habitat of the Iberian lynx, a species on the edge of extinction. It heavily condemns EU financial backing of the project through its cohesion funds as financing “the infringement of its own laws” and says it is taking court action against six projects.

Ecologists in Action also says that the project “will produce strong tension between localities providing and those receiving water” and will “lead to an uncontrolled growth in the demands of the Mediterranean coast, which by the time the canal is built, will not have been allowed for”. The group calls for an end of irrigation projects on the Mediterranean coast, which it says, are leading to an unsustainable growth in intensive agriculture.

Greenpeace has also heavily criticised the hydraulic plan, saying that it will only serve to increase consumption of a scarce commodity.

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