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Spain's Water Fair Tackles Conservation with Innovation

The northeastern Spanish city of Zaragoza is hosting an international water fair to highlight the importance of this vital and increasingly threatened resource. Spain is no stranger to water scarcity. The country is juggling competing demands of urban development, tourism, agriculture - and climate change. Lisa Bryant takes a look at the problems - and the solutions - for VOA from Zaragoza.

Running until September, Zaragoza's international water fair is enormous. Countries from all over the world are hosting exhibits. Local musicians stage concerts throughout the day and well into the night.

Straddling the Ebro River, one of Spain's major tributaries, this ancient city is a good place to showcase the importance of water. Water scarcity is a reality in the coastal and southern regions of Spain, and even in parts of the Aragon region in the country's northeast, where Zaragoza is located. Experts say climate change is compounding the problem, with longer spells of dry weather.

The Mediterranean city of Barcelona was even forced to import water from Marseille France, this year - until major rains swept across the region. But they amount to only a short-term reprieve.

Kevin Parris, an economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, says somehow politicians have to find a way to resolve competing demands for water.

"Clearly national and regional governments in Spain have a problem when it comes to water," Parris said. "Primarily because of the intensifying competition between agriculture, tourism and urban development - particularly along the coastal areas of Spain. And also the increasing impact of climate change which looks to be slightly worse [than predicted] in the next 10 to 20 years."

Spain's water woes are shared by other Mediterranean countries in Europe, such as Greece and Portugal. Experts say others in the Middle East and North Africa may be heading toward a real water crisis - especially when climate change is factored in.

International water expert Eduardo Mestre, who coordinates conferences at the Zaragoza fair, says the solution lies with better technology and better water management.

"People are going to have to work harder to make water be used more effectively than before and the way to share water among different users and communities has to be the rule of thumb," Mestre said.

Spain is already exploring some of those options. The government has already built two large desalination plants, converting seawater into drinking water. There are plans for five more.

Also under construction are plants to recycle wastewater. Frederic Certain, managing director for Veolia Agua, which runs the plant and several others in Spain, says the country is a leader in Europe when it comes both to desalination and recycling water.

"Desalination is a very important thing," Certain noted. "When the (national) program will be achieved, probably there will be a pause and after that water recycling will be the work to be done in Spain. The spanish have worked a lot in the past years, especially to have water for irrigation. But new uses are forecast, mainly for industry, in many cases to release water for drinking water. This exchange will probably take place a lot along the Spanish coast. And for us in Veolia, this is a fantastic opportunity to work and to invest."

At the plant, wastewater undergoes a series of purification stages before emerging clean enough for agricultural or industrial uses, or to replenish water bodies - but it is not considered clean enough to drink. The leftover sludge is used to generate energy used in the plant.

But wastewater recycling and desalination are only part of the solution. Desalination is also controversial, since it uses a lot of energy. Some environmentalists fear it may damage marineland and coastal habitats.

Experts like Victor Vinuales also say the other part of Spain's water solution is conservation and sharing water. Vinuales is head of the Ecology and Development Foundation, a non-governmental organization based in Zaragoza.

Vinuales believes Spain needs to create a social pact for water use. It should be based on what is appropriate for the region - and that does not mean using water for golf courses or lawns more suitable for northern Europe.

Part of Spain's problem is that water is cheap - or at least it is priced that way. Like many other countries, water here is heavily subsidized, especially in the agricultural sector, which is by far the country's largest water user. Unless prices rise, people have little incentive to conserve.

Another option: transfering water from water-rich areas to water-poor ones - also faces hurdles. Many residents in the Aragon region, for example, are against the possibility of transfering water from the Ebro River to the Mediterranean city of Valencia, which has less water. That includes Zaragoza resident Carlos Kil, who attended the water fair.

Kil says his region needs the water. Why should it transfer it to Valencia, where it will just be used for golf courses?

It is hard to imagine Zaragoza will ever have a water problem. Pedestrian and bike paths line the Ebro River. Fountains splash in the city's center. But experts warn that in the future water scarcity could trigger conflicts among different regions in Spain - and maybe water wars in some parts of the world. Unless it is treated like the precious resource it is.