Uncertain future for Rhone to Barcelona water pipeline

A proposed pipeline that would direct water from the mouth of the Rhône to Barcelona would have minimal environmental impact within France, according to a report. Despite the report's findings, opposition to the pipeline is substantial and comes from both French and Spanish sources.


The proposed pipeline would take less than 1% of the Rhône ‘s total flow in normal years. It would be transported via a 436km, 2.8m diameter underground pipe along the French and Catalonian coasts, with flows as high as 15m³ per second.
According to El Pais, the Spanish daily, the French Environment Ministry commissioned a study on the pipeline’s feasibility that has questioned whether Barcelona’s water needs are as high as stated. Josep Vergés, a Catalan economist who contributed to the French Environment Ministry study, argues that the Catalonian government has over-estimated its water needs.
Reductions in both residential and industrial water consumption have combined with slower population growth in the Barcelona area, to create, according to Vergés, a level of demand that does not require a pipeline on the scale of the one proposed.
Water consumption in Barcelona has reduced from 308l per capita in 1994 to 221l in 1997. Recent increases in consumers’ water bills are considered a factor in the reduction.
Another voice in opposition to the Rhône pipeline comes from Bernard Barraqué, a director at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research and author of The Politics of Water in Europe. Barraqué was a member of the BRL-commissioned scientific panel that has found in favour of the pipeline. He resigned from the panel and said: “Barcelona does not need the Rhône’s water, and if it needs it, it doesn’t need as much water as this project proposes.” Barraqué also suggests that efforts should be made to reduce agricultural water consumption.
In favour of the pipeline is the BRL-sponsored Scientific Committee for the Languedoc-Rosellon-Catalonia Aquaduc. It has concluded that environmental impact would be minimal and the pipeline would be a benefit to the Languedoc-Rossellon region in France by increasing the amount of water available for agriculture.
Jordi Pujol, president of Catalonia, has stated that the Rhone pipeline is the easiest option if an agreement cannot be reached with the Spanish region of Aragon to take water from the Ebro. The BRL study associates higher environmental impact with the Ebro plan than the Rhône pipeline project.
Meanwhile, the Catalonian Department of the Environment believes that the Rhône plan offers a good solution to Barcelona’s future water needs from a technical perspective, but that the economics may not be as attractive. The department emphasises that the Rhône pipeline is only one of many options under review.
If the Rhône pipeline project goes ahead, it will be the first such pipeline to cross national boundaries within Europe. Completion of the Spanish National Hydraulic Plan is required before approval, and a bilateral agreement between France and Spain would also be necessary.

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