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Barcelona relies on desalination to face drought

  • Barcelona relies on desalination to face drought

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Europe's largest desalination plant near Barcelona has become crucial in providing drinking water during the sustained drought affecting Spain’s second-largest city, reports Associated Press.

The Llobregat desalination plant, a SWRO plant, was inaugurated in 2009 and can produce 200 million litres of water per day. It has been operating at full capacity since late last summer. While in April 2021 desalination accounted for only 3% of Barcelona's drinking water (63% came from surface water and another 34% from groundwater), currently desalination provides 33% of the drinking water supply compared to 19% from rivers.

Despite recent rains, the reservoirs on Catalonia’s rivers located wholly within the region at are 28% of capacity. The rest of Spain is also suffering a prolonged drought: 2022 was the hottest year ever recorded, last spring was the hottest and second driest on record, and next summer is predicted to be warmer than normal across the country. Rains in the past few weeks have increased the reserves stored in parts of the country, but water reserves have decreased in the country as a whole, currently at 47% of capacity, well below the 10-year average of 68%.

The Mediterranean region is becoming warmer faster than other world regions; France and Italy have announced measures to deal with drought impacts at the national level, and the European Commission is considering allocating extra funds from the agricultural crisis reserve among countries in southern Europe most affected by droughts and floods, including Portugal, Spain, Italy and France.

In Catalonia, water restrictions are in place affecting agricultural and industrial uses, as well as some municipal uses, including a per person allocation of 230 litres per-person per day. Last April, the head of Catalonia’s Water Agency warned that the Barcelona area and other cities in Catalonia could face a “drought emergency” by September, which is reached when reserves drop below 16%.

Desalination has been a key part of Spain's water policy for decades, and the country is the fourth country in the world in terms of desalination capacity, with 5.7% of the global capacity, and after Saudi Arabia, the United States and the United Arab Emirates. There are 765 operating desalination plants with a production of more than 100 m3/day in Spain, and the total production amounts to 5 million m3 per day for drinking water, irrigation and industrial uses.

The Spanish government approved in May €2190 million in funding to address the impact of drought and increase the availability of water resources, including 1400 million from the Ministry for the Ecological Transition (MITECO) for new infrastructure such as desalination plants, to double urban water reuse and to reduce water tariffs for affected farmers.

Desalination does not come without concerns. The Llobregat desalination plant produces a significant amount of salty brine – 0.55 litres per 0.45 litres of freshwater – and requires a lot of energy that for now does not come fully from renewable sources. On the other hand, desalinated water is more expensive to produce compared to water from rivers, which may result in higher water bills for consumers.

Experts suggest diversifying water sources to adapt to more frequent droughts as climate changes, contemplating a mix that includes desalination and water reuse, and highlighting the need to integrate renewable energies to address the impact of producing drinking water from energy-intensive unconventional water sources.

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