The Maui News

Drought-struck Barcelona quenches thirst with costly desalinati­on


EL PRAT DE LLOBREGAT, Spain — Where once the population of Barcelona drank mostly from its rivers and wells, Spain’s second city now relies upon a labyrinth-like mesh of green, blue and purple pipes inside an industrial plant to keep it from going thirsty amid a prolonged drought.

Water is pumped from 1.2 miles into the Mediterran­ean Sea to where the Llobregat desalinati­on plant sits on an isolated stretch of beach. After journeying through several cleaning and filtering systems it reaches its final stop: the twisting and turning multi-colored channels that squeeze every drop of water free of its salt.

Barely used after being built in 2009, Europe’s largest desalinati­on plant for drinking water is running at full throttle to help the greater Barcelona area and some five million people adapt to the impact of climate change, which has contribute­d to the drying up of southern Europe’s fresh water reserves through heat waves and drought.

In April 2021, before the drought, rivers provided 63 percent of Barcelona’s drinking water, wells provided 34 percent and desalinati­on just 3 percent. Two years later desalinati­on makes up 33 percent of Barcelona’s drinking water, while wells provide 23 percent and its shrinking rivers just 19 percent, according to Barcelona’s municipal water company.

With the reservoirs fed by Catalonia’s northern river basins at just 25 percent capacity, limits have been placed on the amount of water available for agricultur­e, industry and some municipal uses. But authoritie­s have not had to take drastic action like during the 2006-2008 drought when tanker vessels shipped in drinking water.

“We knew that sooner or later a drought would come,” Carlos Miguel, plant manager, told The Associated Press during a recent visit to the Llobregat plant.

“As long as the drought continues the plant will keep running. That is clear.”

While the building of the Llobregat plant is the result of authoritie­s heeding warnings from climate experts and planning ahead, it comes at high economic and environmen­tal costs.

In the desalinati­on process at the Llobregat plant, for every 0.45 liters of fresh water, around 0.55 liters of extremely salty brine is produced as waste. The reverse osmosis process, where high pressure forces seawater through membranes which separates the salt, also requires a lot of energy that doesn’t yet come entirely from renewable energy sources.

The Mediterran­ean region is heating up at a faster rate than many other areas of the globe, leading to a record-hot 2022 in Spain and a widespread drought that is hurting agricultur­e. The lack of water is particular­ly acute in northeast Catalonia, whose water agency forecasts that its water resources will shrink by 18 percent before 2050.

Water authoritie­s predict that the Barcelona area is heading for an official “drought emergency”, which will imply tighter restrictio­ns, by September.

“We forecast that for the rest of May rainfall will be above average, but that does not make up for 32 months of drought,” Samuel Reyes, head of the Catalan Water Agency, said recently.

Desalinati­on has formed a key part of Spain’s water policy for over half a century. The island of Lanzarote in Spain’s Canary Islands archipelag­o installed Europe’s first desalinati­on plant back in 1964, and the industry has kept growing in the southern European country prone to long, dry summers. The developmen­t and spread of the reverse osmosis technique in the 1980s and 90s, along with reduced costs, led to its buildout across many areas of mainland Spain.

Spain is now fourth in the world for its desalinati­on capacity, about 5 percent of the global total, behind Saudi Arabia, the United States and the United Arab Emirates, according to the Spanish Associatio­n of Desalinati­on and Water Re-utilizatio­n. Desalinati­on capacity has steadily gone up worldwide in the past decade, with the technology seeing a bigger uptick in Europe and Africa.

Spain has some 800 desalinati­on plants that can produce 5 million cubic liters a day of water for drinking, agricultur­e, and industry. If that were dedicated solely for human consumptio­n, it would quench the thirst of 34 million people — over 70 percent of

Spain’s population.

As part of a $2.4-billion drought response package, Spain’s national government said this week that it was setting aside $238 million to expand another desalinati­on plant north of Barcelona, plus another $216 million for a plant on Spain’s southern coast. It also pledged to spend $242 million on improving water purificati­on systems in southern Spain.

This small miracle of scientific innovation, however, includes even more costs.

According to the public company that runs the Llobregat plant, a thousand liters of desalinate­d water costs 0.70 euros to produce, compared to 0.20 euros for the same quantity of water pulled from the Llobregat river and purified for drinking. That means a heavier tax burden and, possibly, higher water bills.

Xavier S nchez-Vila, professor of civil engineerin­g and groundwate­r expert for the Universita­t Politecnic­a de Catalunya, said that while desalinati­on plants like the one in Barcelona have provided a lifeline in a time of crisis, authoritie­s should continue to diversify their strategies and focus on improving water purificati­on and reuse.

“Of course, with climate change we know that droughts are going to be more frequent and therefore there is this need (for desalinati­on),” he said. “But in economic terms, I am not completely sure whether it makes sense to keep building them. A few more maybe, but knowing that these are a really expensive solution.”

 ?? AP photo
of the pipeline that transports A person looks out at the view seawater to filters at Europe’s largest desalinati­on plant for drinking water located in Barcelona, Spain on May 16. Europe’s largest desalinati­on plant for drinking water had largel ??
AP photo of the pipeline that transports A person looks out at the view seawater to filters at Europe’s largest desalinati­on plant for drinking water located in Barcelona, Spain on May 16. Europe’s largest desalinati­on plant for drinking water had largel

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