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Interview

"Water Is the Blue Soul of the Planet"

by Kim Todd

A Spanish Economist on things that can’t be bought or sold.

From a distance, economist Pedro Arrojo Agudo looks like the stereotype of a professor: trim beard, glasses, a crisp white shirt. Get a little closer, though, and the image begins to blur. Maybe it’s the bracelet of colorful strands wove around his wrist, or the way he quotes Spanish song lyrics as easily as he cites statistics from government reports. Face to face, he seems less like an academic and more like the activist who has turned a dry trickle of interest in water policy into a tidal wave of protest.

In the mid-1990s, Arrojo, a professor at Spain’s University of Zaragoza, conducted an economic analysis of the country’s $25 billion National Hydrological Plan and its impact on small villages in the Pyrenees. He found that the more than 100 proposed new dams would flood villagers’ homes, displace mussel and rice farmers, and damage the biologically rich Ebro River delta, a nature park frequented by night herons and flamingos. It also didn’t make sense financially: Crops irrigated by the scheme wouldn’t be profitable without large government subsidies. Arrojo concluded that the water plan was a disaster and opposed public funding of dams designed for private use. Spain already has 1,200 large dams, putting it in the top five dam-building countries worldwide.

As a researcher, Arrojo has produced reports on the sorry state of the existing waterworks. (One showed that pipes were so leaky in Zaragoza, there was no difference between day- and nighttime water use.) He has also launched the Foundation for a New Water Culture, a nonprofit promoting water conservation and agricultural reform. As an activist, sticker-plastered bullhorn in hand, he has led hunger strikes and helped organize protests against the National Hydrological Plan throughout Spain. For these efforts, Arrojo received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize at an April awards ceremony, where he recounted some of the movement’s greatest successes: In Zaragoza, 400,000 people—two-thirds of the city’s entire population—marched in opposition. Another 300,000 protested in Madrid. Even in Barcelona, a city that stands to benefit from the water diversion, 250,000 took to the streets.

The protestors have won support from several members of the European Parliament, and the European Commission for the Environment has expressed concerns about Spain’s plans. Without the approval of the European Union, which is slated to provide 40 percent of the funding for the National Hydrological Plan, Spain may have to go back to the drawing board. A defeat for dams in Spain would resonate around the Mediterranean—and provide inspiration to activists worldwide. "Water is the blue soul of the planet," Arrojo says. "To fight for water is to fight for the health and dignity of current and future generations."

Sierra: What are the ideas behind the New Water Culture?

Pedro Arrojo Agudo: Rivers are not canals of water, they are much more: They are life. We are interested in saving the health of the rivers, not just the chemical purity of the water. Rivers embody cultural values, social values, and the identity of a territory. You cannot think about Paris without the Seine, and not because the Seine produces maize or electricity, but because the Seine is Paris. In Spain, we have lost thousands of pretty inland river coasts, which some years ago everyone could enjoy.

The people living around a river have a right to the river. It’s not fair, for instance, to say to people in the Amazon, "Well, you are a small minority of 20,000, and in São Paulo there are 20 million people, so you have to be destroyed." Communities have the right to live sustainably in their own country with their own ecosystems.

Sierra: How broadly and quickly has this movement spread?

Arrojo: It began in small mountain villages without any

tradition of mobilization or social organization. There were no trade unions, nothing at all. From that point we began to connect people affected by big dams and big water transfers. After two years of organizing and leading small demonstrations in the rural areas, we tried to get this movement into the main city of Zaragoza. But the rural people were afraid. They didn’t want to go to the city. The government was pushing ahead very strongly to approve the big dams.

Along with another professor from the university, I began a hunger strike. Several mayors of the small towns said, "I will try also with you for one month." In the next week 15 or 20 more people prepared to fast for three weeks, and the next week we added 20 or 30 more. The last day we were overwhelmed. It was wonderful—3,500 people in the main villages and in Zaragoza did a symbolic one-day hunger strike. For the first time, the citizens looked at dams not just as an ecological problem, or a problem for small minorities in the Pyrenees, but as a social problem for all of Spain.

In the last two years, more than one million people have marched in the streets against this National Hydrological Plan—the biggest environmental demonstrations in Europe.

Sierra: You have said that these water diversions and dams made sense economically 50 years ago, but not now. Why?

Arrojo: One hundred years ago, half of Spain’s economy was agriculture. In a Mediterranean country, each six to seven years you have a drought, and 50 percent of the economy would break down. You cannot build a modern economy with this kind of uncertainty, so at that time we needed these big dams. But in Spain now, agriculture is less than 4 percent of production, so agricultural deals are not as important and profitable as they were 50 years ago. Without subsidies, the costs are much higher than the benefits.

Sierra: What are the alternatives?

Arrojo: If you want more water, it’s less expensive to apply the new technologies of desalination than to build the large-scale diversion schemes. But institutionally, we are used to subsidizing concrete and we are not used to subsidizing new technologies, so the way of gaining votes for the next election is to promise more subsidized water.

The main question is what kind of country we want to have. Do you want a Mediterranean coast in concrete and golf courses from France to Gibraltar? If you want this kind of territory, you need the water of the Ebro River and afterwards you need the water of the Rhône in France and afterwards you will need the water of the Rhine in Germany.

It’s the same as is happening in California with Los Angeles and San Diego. At the beginning you need the water of Owens Valley, then the water of the Colorado River; after that, you need the water from the Klamath and the Trinity and perhaps from Alaska.When you look at a wild river and say, "Oh, that’s nice for making maize or kilowatts of electricity," it’s the same as going to a Santa Monica beach and saying, "Oh, what wonderful sand for construction." The beach is more valuable as beach than as sand and the river is more valuable as river than as water.

Sierra: Do people ask how you, as an economist, can value things that don’t have economic value?

Arrojo: There is a song in Spain that I used to quote to my faculty, which says, "El cariño verdadero ni se compra ni se vende," or "True love cannot be bought or sold." We have a lot of values in the world that are not counted in the market.

I don’t agree with the people who feel that everything has to be valued in dollars and in euros. I prefer to measure some things in dollars and some things in other kinds of values, like social values and biological values. But it doesn’t matter. We can do it either way. The result is still negative for these big dams. Technically, economically, environmentally, and socially, they don’t make sense.


Kim Todd is an environmental writer based in San Francisco.

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