Public Relations Nightmare: Barcelona Forced to Import Drinking Water During Massive Spanish Drought

Spain's worst drought in decades forced the proud city of Barcelona to start shipping in drinking water Tuesday, an unprecedented step that business leaders bemoan as a public relations nightmare for one of Europe's top tourist destinations.

A Panamanian-flagged tanker loaded with water docked in Spain's second-largest city, launching a mission by an emergency, six-vessel flotilla scheduled to operate for at least three months.

Tuesday's scene was humbling for Catalonia, the capital of which is Barcelona, with more than 100 journalists crowded at the dock to record the water delivery.

The region likes to say it stands out from the rest of Spain for its efficiency and economic might. But it has been among the regions hardest hit by Spain's worst springtime drought since record-keeping began 60 years ago.

"It has been one of the driest years ever, and Barcelona has found itself in need of water," said Leonard Carcole, director-general of Aguas de Barcelona, the city's utility.

The ships will provide the 5.5 million people of greater Barcelona with 6 percent of their usual monthly water consumption.

The ship solution and a planned $277 million pipeline to bring in water from the Ebro River to the west are designed to help the region hang on until a desalination plant is completed in May of next year.

That facility, which would be one of the biggest of its kind in Europe, is supposed to resolve many of Catalonia's water woes.

Catalonia's reservoirs are at dramatically low levels — around 29 percent of capacity, about half the national average — and restrictions are already in force: city fountains and showers at beaches have been turned off, large swimming pools must be filled with recycled water and people cannot water their lawns.

Actually, it has rained a lot in the past few days in Catalonia — enough for the region's environment minister, Francesc Baltasar, to liken the region to a person who is sick but getting better.

"We have left intensive care and been taken to an ordinary ward, but we are still in the hospital," Baltasar said. The restrictions will be lifted Friday, he said.

Because of the recent rains, the Catalan Federation of Commerce pressed for a delay in using ships to bring in water, saying this should only be a last-ditch resort. To do so now is alarmist and makes the city and region look bad, it said.

"You can understand a boat bringing water to an island, but not to a continent," the federation's secretary general Miguel Angel Fraile said.

The crisis is the latest in a string of embarrassments for Catalonia. Last year sink holes delayed construction of a high-speed rail line from Madrid to Barcelona, and other engineering problems with it shut down commuter rail lines for days. In July, a blackout left 350,000 people in Barcelona without power for three days.

Now Catalonia is buying extra water, even from France; some of the emergency ships will come from Marseille.

The tanker that arrived Tuesday after a four-hour voyage from the Spanish city of Tarragona further south was carrying 5 million gallons of water, enough to fill about eight Olympic-size swimming pools and meet the daily consumption needs of 170,000 people.

Water is a perennial source of tension among Spain's regions.

Last month, when Catalonia reached agreement with Spain's central government on transferring Ebro River water to Barcelona through a pipeline, other regions cried foul.

The loudest complaints came from two parched southeast regions, Valencia and Murcia, which depend heavily on tourism and agriculture.

They had been scheduled to benefit from a permanent and much larger diversion of water from the Ebro, but were shut out when Socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero took power in 2004 and scrapped the plan, calling it too expensive, environmentally unfriendly and a bad way to manage a scarce resource.

Ecologists say Spain's agriculture sector, with out-of-date irrigation systems and crops that need disproportionate amounts of water, uses up to 70 percent of the country's water. They add that a tourism model based on huge resorts and golf courses is also unsustainable.