The Guardian: The drought, when it came two decades ago, was severe. As reservoirs across Spain dried up in the early 1990s, the number of forest fires soared, crops whittled and more than 11 million Spaniards faced water shortages. Scientists would go on to note that the five-year drought – the worst on record in the last century – ranked among the country’s worst natural disasters in terms of people affected.
When the rains began to fall again in 1996, municipalities scrambled to secure their quotas and set water restrictions on residents. But in the northern city of Zaragoza, one group took a very different approach.
Water had always been managed in a reactive way in Spain, said Víctor Viñuales, co-founder and director of the Spanish NGO Fundación Ecología y Desarrollo (Ecology and Development Foundation). His approach was, as he put it: “We need water, where will we find it?” It was an approach that had pushed Spain into a counter-intuitive position of having one of the world’s highest per capita water consumption rates despite limited access to freshwater. “There simply weren’t any policies in place to manage the demand.”
Trained as a sociologist, Viñuales wondered what would happen if municipalities focused less on making sure residents had access to all the water they wanted and more on reducing demand. From that thought began a 15-year experiment in Zaragoza that has revolutionised how many in Spain – from locals to public officials – think about water management.
Today Viñuales rattles off statistic after statistic to show how this city of 700,000 has transformed itself. Between 1997 and 2012, per capita use of water in Zaragoza dropped from 150 litres/day to 99 litres/day. The drop even sustained an increase in population; between 1997 and 2008, the city’s population grew by 12% but daily water use dropped by 27%.
The project started simply, with a challenge put to the city’s residents to save 1bn litres of water in a year. “It was a collective challenge with a simple objective that was easy for people to understand,” said Viñuales. “Because behind any of these processes of social transformation lies an exercise in the seduction of the citizens.”
Spurred into action by widespread media coverage and school outreach campaigns, more than 30,000 residents formally pledged to reduce their water use. In the first year of the project, the city’s residents surpassed their goal, saving 1.176bn litres of water, an amount equivalent to 5.6% of annual domestic consumption.
The next phase of the project relied on a network of what Viñuales called 50 volunteer “accomplices”. Free audits were offered to help implement water-saving – and ultimately cost-saving – measures to a diverse group that included a hospital, a fish vendor and a swimming pool. As soon as positive results came rolling in, Viñuales’s group would spread the word to similar business, handing out guidebooks that explained which techniques were used.
He pointed to a local hairdressing salon, where the audit resulted in water savings of 90%. “Immediately we spread the news about these good practices to the other 1000 hairdressing salons in the city.” With the leaders marking the path, the majority soon followed, he said, prompted along by an ongoing large-scale awareness raising campaign.
Behind the scenes, his group worked with the municipality to offer discounts on water-saving products as well as to residents who managed to reduce their water consumption. The city’s water bills were redesigned so that residents could see how much water they had used that month in comparison to previous months. Viñuales’s group also worked with retailers to ensure that water-saving options – for products ranging from toilets to taps – were widely available to citizens. “What we did was articulate the project, then use social and economic actors to weave the project into the lives of citizens. The project really belonged to everyone,” said Viñuales. He and his team are now working with officials across Spain to implement similar programs in various cities and regions.
In Zaragoza, the focus has shifted to innovation in water management, through a research cluster that uses the city as a “living lab,” said Marisa Fernández who leads the Zinnae cluster.
A public park in the city that sits on a steep slope, for example, has become the site of several experiments to tackle erosion. “A plant company from Zaragoza has put a certain type of plant there and a company from Madrid developed a watering system for it. Both are testing to see if they can avoid erosion without wasting water.”
The city’s aquifer is also getting a makeover, as the cluster, the University of Zaragoza and various companies work together to develop a “smart” system to manage its use. “When we began, we inherited years of raising awareness amongst residents, companies and the city,” said Fernández. “There was a trajectory of collaboration of many years.”
As the Spanish economy fights off a double-digit recession and rampant unemployment, environmental issues have been pushed to the back burner, she said. “Municipalities in Spain have limited their spending on infrastructure. They’re not looking for innovation, but rather just maintenance.” The cluster has responded by increasingly tying their work to cost-saving benefits as well as setting their sights beyond the Spanish border, targeting markets across Europe and in central and south America.
Spain’s crippling economic crisis served to underscore a virtue that’s been key to the project, said Viñuales: Patience. “We’re talking about a process of 15 years. To achieve profound change – whether it be environmental, social or cultural – you have to be prepared to take it on for the long haul.
“Here in Zaragoza we’ve had that profound change. The population grew, but we use fewer resources than before.” He paused before he adding, “It’s really what needs to be achieved on a global level.”
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