International Annual UN-Water Zaragoza Conference 2012/2013
Preparing for the 2013 International Year. Water Cooperation: Making it Happen! 8-10 January 2013

Side event: The case of stakeholders platforms in Spain and the Ebro River Basin

Date: 10 January 2013
Time: 09:30 am to 1:30 pm
Venue: Ebro River Basin Authority
Convener: Ebro River Basin Authority
Facilitators: Mario Gaviria (sociologist) and Josefina Maestu (UNW-DPAC)

>> Video recording of session

Conflict and cooperation

Spain is an interesting case of how early the social perception about the importance of water for economic development leads to practical and successful cooperation arrangements. For instance the Valencia Water Tribunal (Tribunal de Aguas de Valencia) has been settling disputes over irrigation water for more than a thousand years and it still uncertain origin can be traced back to the Roman Empire. From the 8th to the 15th century many water associations were formed to develop and managed irrigation schemes such as the “azudes”, small water reservoirs and water diversions from rivers, and the “azarbes” drainage systems ensuring the water for downstream users. In all these cases water scarcity, resulting from low and highly variable rainfall, has probably played a role in making visible the need to find out workable arrangements to solve water conflicts and also to cooperate in the setting up of practical alternatives to cope with water scarcity.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, spontaneous agreements appear to gather work efforts and financial resources to help coping with many challenges and opportunities posed by water to the legitimate search of economic development. That happens in Valencia, where rivers run dry for the most part of the year but floods are common in the rainy season, but also in the Ebro river valley where rain and runoff is more stable but still highly variable and the resource supply is very low during spring and summer when irrigation water is more required. Water resources might be enough overall to cope with existing demands but its time and space distribution are clearly not and adapting supply and demand is clearly out of the scope of any individual user, especially in areas, such as the Ebro and the Jucar where the rural economy was not controlled by few landowners but by many medium and small farmers.

Cooperation , water and economic development

Shifting from rain-fed to irrigated agriculture might be the corner stone to overcome the subsistence production system in place and transform it into a prosperous agricultural system, but this will not only require installing the pumps and the irrigation devices needed in each plot, but being in the social, technical and financial capacity to build the infrastructures required to store, transport and distribute the water trough time and space. If competition for the few and variable resources available in the critical moments was the cause of many problems and social unrest, cooperation and the setting of shared, transparent and enforceable water use rules was relatively rapidly perceived the solution. And if poverty and the lack of anyone’s resources was the constraint impeding the development of water resources, pooling financial means and agreeing on sharing the benefits of collective efforts was perceived as the key to start agricultural development.

This explain why in many parts of Spain water authorities were not the result of a policy decision to gain the control over the water resources but of a bottom-up approach pushed up from the interest of many entrepreneurs (not just farmers but merchants, constructors, transport entrepreneurs, electricity producers, etc.) to make water an integral part of what was perceived as a promising development strategy. The creation of water authorities about one century ago owns more to the spontaneous cooperation among private entrepreneurs, which most representative leaders where called the enlightened (los ilustrados), rather than to the initiative of a politician or of a conscious civil servant. Initially, these associations were called syndicates (e.g. of farmers, fishermen, builders, etc.), and grouped further on in societies (for the common interest and collective progress). This way, the first river basin authorities, the Ebro founded in 1926 and the Segura in 1931, were created as private-public partnerships for water development. Although these entities were progressively transformed into government institutions (as they are at least since 1958) due to its origin users have always had a voice in any important decision and formal mechanisms do exist to channel water users’ views and preferences.

Adapting water cooperation to emerging water policy challenges and priorities

The development priority explains why, at the origin, the main focus of public action was in making more reliable and cheap water available for the development objectives. By building collective facilities to support the accumulation of capital in the agriculture, hydropower and drinking water provision industries, water policy has played a role as the engine of growth in such a way that the availability of water infrastructures has been so far perceived as the critical factor explaining both the constraints and the opportunities of economic growth. Gradually, the development priority has been replaced by another one focused in making the many uses of water sustainable, which requires managing water demand further than water supply and making economic growth possible while using less water and protecting better the water sources. All this gives stakeholders (not just water users) with new role and new responsibilities in the entire water decision making policy process.

The institutional framework, in particular since 2002 when the process to draft the new River Basin Management Plans required by the Water Framework directive started, has been pushed towards a more active and transparent stakeholder involvement including:

  • A collective and cooperative decision, within the range of the available options, to decide not only what pressures to be allowed, but what the desired ecological status of the rivers is, when and how this status is to be obtained, what uses, under what circumstances, need to be prioritized over the others, and so forth. In the new context, rather than being a technical problem water management becomes a collective policy dilemma.
  • A public participation conceived as a means to confront society with the main water policy challenges and to share information about the expectations of the different stakeholders (particularly of water users with potential demands and expectations which are incompatible with each other and with the objectives of preserving water resources). In this respect, it is a means of choosing a collective course of action but also to overcome with limited vested private and short term interests to the benefit of a social and long term perception of water management problems.
  • A social opportunity to build a system of management with the ambition to be ethical, efficient and sustainable within the whole framework of the basin.
  • A cooperative model that includes all stakeholders within the shared authority of the watershed organization. Participation is seen as a cornerstone from the top to the bottom: from the water council of the river basin through a participatory network reaching all the sub-basins in the river basin.

Cooperation and Public Participation in Spain: a wider perspective

As above said, public participation in water management in Spain is complex. The system we have today is the result of the last 100 years of interactions between different stakeholders under changing political and economic conditions. Water differs significantly from other “public realms” and public participation therefore takes a number of forms which are particular to it.

In looking at the structure of Public Participation today it is important to distinguish between participation in different scales of river basin management, the different aspects of water management open for participation and the different levels of participation.

It is important then to distinguish between participation at national, river basin, regional, and local scale; participation in policy-making and legislation development, participation in planning decisions, in investment infrastructure decisions, in management decisions, and in “administration” and regulatory decisions.

Participation also varies depending on whether there is an advisory role, decision-making role, implementation role, and monitoring and /or evaluation role for those that participate in the different types of activities in water management.

The rich history of public involvement in water policy has resulted in the current existence of many different institutions in charge of channeling public concerns about water. Among these are the following may be the more relevant: 

  • The National Water Council;
  • The River Basin District Committees;
  • The Users Assembly of RBAs;
  • The Exploitation Boards of the RBAs;
  • The Dam Management Commissions of the RBAs;
  • The River Basin Councils;
  • The Committees of Competent Authorities (created with the Water Framework Directive);
  • The Irrigation Associations;
  • The Users Associations;
  • The Irrigation Juries;
  • The Irrigation Tribunals;
  • The General Communities;
  • The Central Assembly of Users;
  • The Communities of Discharge Authorizations Holders.

A cooperation and users involvement is an integral part of Spanish water policy and of the institutions managing water in Spain. The conflict resolutions schemes have allowed the gradual setting of common rules, transparently applied that have been effectively enforced to set disputes peacefully.
Public participation might also a proven institutional framework to agree on practical,  observable and enforceable environmental objectives as demonstrated when setting the targets for the status of water bodies, the minimum flows and, for example, the drought indicators.

Water Cooperation: Zooming into some schemes in Spain

The Water Councils

Making sustainable decisions about water management requires an institutional setting able to cope with the many pre-conditions a successful water management must fulfill: this institutional set-up must be able to build social agreement among all potential water users in the river basin and this requires considering trade-offs, exchange information, building a common and shared vision of the water as a collective rather than as privately used asset. This also requires reaching agreements to modulate and reconcile the ambitions of all the potential users (households, farmers, manufacturers and entrepreneurs in the many water using activities in the economy) within the actual and limited capacity of the existing water resources to fill these ambitions sustainably.

The Water Councils, at each River Basin, have the ambitious task to channel the public participation process and be the focal point of the policy making process for eventually any important decision concerning water management. The Council is in charge of approving the River Basin plan, of making the assessment of the water basin problems, opportunities and alternatives (through the discussion and approval of the so-called EPTIs or Sketch of the relevant problems of the Basin) and of inform any development initiative with significant effect over the status of water bodies (including house building, manufacturing developments, irrigation projects, etc.).

Although they were created relatively recently, as a requirement for the implementation of the Water Framework Directive, the Councils are a natural continuation of the public participation mechanisms already in place. Particularly in the Ebro basin, the creation of the Water Council in October 2011 was seen as a form of enhancing and adapting the multiple organs that have met this role in recent decades with relative success and social acceptance.

The Water Operators Association

Since 1971, the Spanish Association of Water Supply and Sanitation (AEAS by its name in Spanish), is a pioneering professional non-profit organization for the promotion and development of the scientific, technical, administrative and legal for urban water supply and sanitation. The purposes of the Association are the promotion and development of urban water services to improve efficiency, meet the needs, expectations and interests of present and future citizens, protect water resources, ensure lasting use, and protect the environment atmosphere.

It currently has 330 partners and integrated operating entities in association serving more than 35 million people in more than 1,700 Spanish municipalities. As a means to achieve these ends, AEAS work with national authorities and competent EU legislation, use, control and quality of water, promotes training, understanding and knowledge sharing between industry professionals, owned and collaborates in the activities of associations and organizations, whether national or international, organizes conferences, meetings and conferences, and publishes technical publications

The Cooperation Fund for Water and Sanitation (FCAS)

The Cooperation Fund for Water and Sanitation is the instrument chosen by the Spanish government to help ensuring access to safe water and sanitation to the neediest populations in Latin America and the Caribbean. The lack of these basic services is one element that keeps millions of people into poverty, and has a negative impact on health, education, gender equality, and environmental sustainability in the region. It represents the commitment to implement the human right to water and sanitation, as set out in the Third Master Plan for Spanish Cooperation, and is expected to make an important contribution to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

The Fund is an initiative of development cooperation embodying the principles of the Paris Declaration (PD) on Aid Effectiveness to Development. Established in 2007, it began operations in 2008 and is endowed with 1,500 million dollars. The Fund supports programs and projects on water and sanitation in partner countries of the region, giving priority to the poorest and most vulnerable populations. His contributions focus on providing infrastructures, assistance in establishing systems of governance, giving technical advice to help in building efficient, transparent and participatory services and in strengthening institutions and agencies of recipient countries to promote the design and implementation of comprehensive policies to ensure the sustainability of water resources.

The Fund is managed by the Spanish Agency of International Cooperation for Development (AECID), through the Directorate of Sectoral and Multilateral Cooperation, where the Department is part of the Cooperation Fund for Water and Sanitation. To function is provided with an Executive Committee which includes several ministries related to the subject, and an Advisory Board involving public, private and NGO.

The Aragon Water Pollution Fee: A fair instrument to share costs

Guaranteeing the ecological quality of all the water bodies across a country or a region is one of the ambitious tasks of the current water policy in Europe. Although reaching this target is feasible in the range of the existing technical alternatives, the practical implementation requires coping with many financial and distributional issues. Many small and medium activities might not be in the position to pay for the water treatment required without compromising their business viability in the medium term, small rural hamlets cannot benefit from the scale economies and the relative cheap costs of collecting and treating each cubic meter of wastewater in big towns, and the ability to pay of each single household depends on the distribution of income. Under these conditions, the traditional way of asking each individual user responsible for paying a different cost per cubic meter of wastewater, although theoretically efficient, might result in an increasing inequality and might also increase administrative costs and compromise the social acceptance and legitimacy of water policy.

The water disposal charge recently approved in Aragon is an innovative alternative to cope with the above mentioned challenges that, instead of setting individual prices for any user and any place, sets a common environmental tax that will serve to share the costs of reaching and protecting the environmental quality of all the water bodies across the whole territory. If the benefits of preserving the water sources are collective, this must be reached with a solidarity mechanism. This way water becomes more a social responsibility than a private one, the places were objectives are cheaper to reach can cross-subsidize reaching the quality objectives in the more expensive ones and the overall objective of improving water quality does not depend on the differences between the ability to pay off any particular user.

Structure of Side Event

09:30-10:00 Overview of the framework of participated water management in Spain
Víctor Arqued. Planning director, Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment, Spain

10:00- 10:15 Photo presentation of participated processes

10:15- 12:00 Panel Discussion on Strengths and Weaknesses of Cooperation at basin level in the Ebro River Basin
Moderator: Mario Gaviria (sociologist)

  • The legal perspective. Antonio Embid. Law Professor at the University of Zaragoza
  • The social perspective. Manuel Omedas and Andres de Lucas. Office of Planning at the Ebro River Basin Authority. Collegiate bodies in the Ebro River Basin Authority. Organisation of the Ebro River Basin Authority.
  • The view of hydroelectricity users. Clemente Prieto. Deputy Director at Iberdrola
  • The view of the irrigation water users. Cesar Trillo. President of the WUA “Riegos del Alto Aragón”
  • Q&A with case presenters from Peru, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Guatemala, Madagascar et al.

12:00-12:15 Coffee break

12:15 13:30 Panel discussion on Strengths and Weaknesses of other cooperation arrangements
Moderator: Josefina Maestu

  • Solidarity financing mechanism in Aragon. Alfredo Cajal. Director of the Water Institute of the Regional Government
  • Financing participatory processes by the Spanish Water Fund. Adriano Garcia-Loygorry. Coordinator Spanish Water Fund
  • Stakeholder participation in river basin management planning in Navarra. Eva Garcia. Environmental Resources Centre of Navarra (CRANA)

13:30-13:45 Closing. Bert Diphoorn, UN-Water Vice-Chair

13:45-14:30 Lunch and visit to the Automatic Hydrological Information System (SAIH) at the venue