Spain provided the home for Europe's entrance into the desalination industry with the first plant installed on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands in 1964. Since then, the process has expanded throughout the islands and on the Spanish mainland as well. Today, Spain is one of the top users of desalination in the world.
The Canary Islands aren't the only dry areas of the country in need of new water sources. The coast along the Mediterranean, particularly in the south, has long suffered periods of droughts and inadequate access to water. Despite water scarcity, the sun and climate have made the southern region the agricultural breadbasket of Spain and of much of Europe, with miles of greenhouses stretching out to the horizon. At the same time, the population in these areas has grown dramatically.
Spain is already the second most visited country in the world, and tourism in Spain is on the rise. In the past decade the south of Spain has increasingly become a destination for retired northern Europeans looking to create a new home in a land with plenty of sun.
"Here we encounter the paradox: because of the climate and the long hours of sun, there's a great deal of tourism and very productive agriculture. And yet precisely because of the wonderful climate, there's little water," says Claudio Klynhout, director of communications for AcuaMed, the arm of the Spanish government in charge of the water program.
The government has long been a supporter of desalination as a method of dealing with water scarcity. After the Spanish Civil War, Spain's economy was in desperate need of revitalization. The government saw an opportunity to boost economic activities through tourism to the sun-drenched Canary Islands, but the region lacked natural water resources, particularly on the eastern islands. In order to lay the groundwork for economic growth, the government decided to build Europe's first desalination plant in the Canaries. This original plant used the same technology as those in the Middle East, that of vaporization of water. Within a few years, though, the government switched and began using the then-novel reverse-osmosis technology for newer plants.
Recent events have conspired to continue this desalination trend within Spain. Under the past government, officials in Spain had created plans to divert the Ebro River in the water-rich north more than 480 kilometers south to supply the parched regions along the southern coast.
Based on a planned increase in water, developers had rallied behind development schemes costing billions of dollars to build vast tourism complexes between Alicante and Almeria in the south, including dozens of golf courses. But farmers and environmentalists protested that the diversion would have a serious environmental impact on the Ebro and its delta, on the farmland in the north, and along the hundreds of miles of planned pipeline.
When a new government took power in 2004, they put the expected plan on hold. Instead, they've drawn a new plan that supplies water to the south without taking it from the north. The main method involves building 20 new desalination plants all along the Mediterranean coast where needs are highest, focusing on the region in the south. The desalination plants are expected to fulfill 50 percent of the need, with reuse of treated water, increased irrigation efficiency, and other efforts supplying the rest.
"The current government thought that this new plan would be much more secure in guaranteeing water, rain or no rain, independent of the climate," says Klynhout. "In 2005 there was a drought, and there was doubt that the Ebro River would even have had enough water to supply had the planned pipeline been built."
One of the country's recent successes took place in Barcelona: the city's new desalination plant, the largest reverse-osmosis facility in Europe when it was copmpleted in 2009, supplies 20 percent of the city's drinking water. The facility won a 2010 Global Water Award from the industry magazine Global Water Intelligence for technical achievement.