A journey through the Ebro River Basin from the mountains to the tap

The Ebro Basin tour is the flagship fieldtrip of the MSc Water Science, Policy and Management and brings to life many of the issues studied on the course. From abandoned villages and contentious dams, to ecological crises and pollution disasters, the tour vividly illustrates the contested nature of water and the social, political and scientific debates surrounding its use and management.

Rafting on the Gallego river, a tributary of the Ebro

Rafting on the Gallego river, a tributary of the Ebro

On 16 March 2014, our students left the classrooms of Oxford University to embark upon a seven-day tour of the largest river basin in Spain. The journey took them from the Pyrenees to the Ebro Delta, meeting representatives from government, academia, civil society and business along the way.

The students visited the remains of Esco in the mountainous upper reaches of the basin – one of three villages that were abandoned in the 1950s when the Yesa Dam was built, flooding the surrounding farmland and destroying the local agriculture-based livelihoods.

At the heart of dam polemics is the nature of their benefits and costs, which are distributed unevenly across space and time. At the political level, the rational for the Yesa dam is compelling. The 1,500 people affected negatively pale in significance to the estimated 4-6 million people that benefit downstream and security of water supply for the city of Zaragoza. Discussions continue today as work to raise the dam wall sparks fresh debates.

A trip rafting in the village of Murillo de Gallego pointed to another dam controversy. The rafters spoke passionately against a proposed reservoir downstream that would mean the end of the rafting industry and main source of employment for the village.

Students visit the Confederación Hidrográfica del Ebro

Students visit the Confederación Hidrográfica del Ebro

In Zaragoza, students visited the first river basin organisation in the world, the Confederación Hidrográfica del Ebro (CHE), and the body responsible for managing the uneven and uncertain supply of water in the Ebro basin and balancing competing needs from agriculture, industry, municipalities and ecosystems.

Further downstream in the Los Monegros region, low value irrigated agriculture dominates the local economy but there are growing concerns about the environmental impacts of this sector. There is a clear perception among the irrigation communities in the region of a historic ‘right to water’ – a matter of livelihoods – despite economic and ecological arguments against the viability of farming in the area.

At the Ebro Delta, pink flamingos, rice fields, and wetland lagoons litter the scenic landscape which is an area international importance due to its abundant fauna and flora. The Environmental Technology and Research Institute (IRTA) highlighted some of the major environmental issues facing the area, including the lack of connectivity of the river due to the many dams, preventing vital sediments from reaching the shrinking delta.

The Llobregat desalination plant

The Llobregat desalination plant

The final stop of the tour was a visit to desalination plant located next to the mouth of the River Llobregat which supplies drinking water to over 4.5 million people in the Barcelona Metropolitan area. It is the largest desalination plant in Europe that supplies water for human consumption and provides a more politically palatable, if expensive, alternative to rationing scarce freshwater resources.

As the journey down the river basin unfolded and the number of stakeholders and perspectives grew, students gained an appreciation of the complexity of water management. Every stakeholder encountered along the way had a compelling case and a personal story, yet their needs and visions were often at odds.

Any major water management decision will produce winners and losers. The question then, is how to maximise benefits, meet the many and competing demands, navigate the tradeoffs, and stimulate economic growth while meeting environmental needs?

The role of scientists is to gather and communicate the best evidence available to enable policymakers and water managers to make well-informed decisions about the way scarce water resources are used. The MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management is equipping the next generation of water leaders with the knowledge and skills to evaluate and tackle the complex water challenges found in the Ebro and beyond.

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