Ebro River’s Lessons for WSPM students

By Lucy Chen

How can we equitably and efficiently manage and allocate scarce water resources in a river basin with high hydrological variability and competing demands among a multitude of stakeholders? On Sunday March 10, this was the question that MSc students from the Water Science, Policy and Management (WSPM) programme kept in the back of their minds as they embarked on a sun-drenched, week-long field trip across Spain’s Ebro River basin.

At 910 km, the Ebro is the longest river in Spain and its basin covers 17% of the country’s territory, spanning nine of its seventeen autonomous regions. Since the early 20th century, Spain’s national government under Franco funded ambitious dam projects to smooth out the steep hydrograph that brought unpredictable floods and droughts, promoting economic development and fostering nationalism. Today, vast stretches of vineyards, as well as almond and olive plantations in Ebro’s semi-arid central valley testify to this legacy while tensions between domestic and industrial supply, power generation, agriculture, recreation and conservation form an ongoing challenge for the Ebro Basin Water Authority, the Confederación Hydrograficá del Ebre (CHE).

The WSPM students took a plunge into the Ebro’s hydrological past to understand its future. They travelled to the once vibrant village of Ruesta, which was displaced by the construction of the Yesa dam in the 1950s; to the infamous Flix reservoir, which is still wrangling with more than half a century of mismanagement of industrial waste; to the Ebro Delta wetlands, where rice agriculture, tourism and conservation collectively face the threat of rising sea levels; and finally to the Llobregat desalination plant—a 235m € solution to Catalonia’s water scarcity problem that currently only operates at 10% of its full capacity—raising questions about the true cost of resilience. The field trip ended with an expert panel discussion on water management trade-offs with Michael Hanemann, David Grey, Dustin Garrick and Lucia de Stefano. The students came away with the important insight that trade-offs are ultimately an issue of balancing between objectives, the choice of which entails deep philosophical reflections about rights and entitlements. Although finding the suitable objectives can be achieved at a community level by inviting citizens to reflect upon their common future, balancing benefits and costs between the local and national levels will remain a perpetual challenge.