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Environmental Heroes:  Europe's Pedro Arrojo-Agudo - 2003-05-13

The Goldman Environmental Prize is the world's largest award for grassroots activism and environmental achievement. The recipients and there have been a total of 94 of them since the prize was launched in 1989 - hail from every region of the globe Africa, Asia, Europe, the Pacific Island Nations, North America, South and Central America.

In the second in a series of profiles on the 2003 award winners, VOA's Rosanne Skirble spoke with Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, a Spanish professor who has put conservation of water resources on Europe's political agenda.

Pedro Arrojo-Agudo is a man with a mission. The 42-year-old economics professor at the University of Zaragoza heads the Foundation for a New Water Culture, a network that includes 400 professors at 17 universities in Spain and Portugal. The group supports grassroots activism on sustainable water practices.

He says the group got started seven years ago when a small village in the Pryenees asked him to help assess the economic impact of a proposed dam project.

"I was so surprised when figures were so negative," he said. "And, when you talk with the people, who are under these threats or who had the experience to loose their villages, you can not speak with them for more than two minutes before they cry."

That project is part of a $25 billion National Hydrological Plan proposed by the Spanish government in 1995, which would erect 120 new dams. It would also divert the nation's second largest river from northeastern Spain to the arid Mediterranean coast.

Advocates for the plan say it would provide much needed water resources to agriculture, cities, tourist centers and industries located in the dry climate of the south.

Mr. Arrojo-Agudo argues that the social and environmental costs are too great. Entire towns would be submerged by reservoirs, and a productive farming region, a national park and critical habitat for migrating birds would be destroyed. He calls the plan an outdated water diversion scheme.

"The key question for solving the water problems in the world, isn't the big concrete [dams] under [government] subsidies, but good [water] management, demand management and above all, conservation," he said. "If we kill the sources, if we kill the rivers, we are killing the future."

The Spanish parliament which approved the initiative has appealed to the European Union to help fund the plan. Pedro Arrojo-Agudo says the grassroots movement working to defeat the project is inspired by what he calls a "new water culture."

"People begin to understand in Europe and in Spain that the rivers are not just canals of water, but they are patrimony," he said. "They [the rivers] are heritage [the] soul of the landscape. [They are the] identity [of a people] and health and a lot of things, of course water too, but not just water."

The new water culture has captured the imagination of the Spanish people and driven them into the streets to protest the hydrological plan.

"Seven years ago we were 2,000 people in Madrid, last year in Madrid we were 300,000 people, and in Zaragoza 400,000 in the street," Mr. Arrojo-Agudo said. "These people are not directly affected to be flooded, but they think that the river, their river, their country is threatened. This is the motivation for attracting the support of such a large group of people."

If the European Union decides not to fund the project, Pedro Arrojo-Agudo says the Spanish government would be forced to revise the plan to make wiser use of water, which is the outcome he is fighting for.

"If not, if the money is delivered you will see thousands of people in front of the bulldozers and we will see a lot of non-violent troubles that will be moving [impressive] for all the world," he said. "I think that it will be a scandal for Europe and a scandal for democracy."

Pedro Arrojo-Agudo says he intends to use the $125,000 Goldman Environment prize money to continue his advocacy against the hydrological plan, but also "to forge a sustainable water future based on conservation, recycling and smarter agricultural choices."