Into the Sea: Desalination as a Hydro-Social Fix in Spain

Erik Swyngedouw

Environment and History

When the socialist party (PSOE) unexpectedly won the Spanish elections in 2004, one of the first initiatives of the new government was to scrap the most controversial parts of the Second National Hydraulic Plan, approved in 2001 by the Conservative government (PP). The new plan (AGUA) replaces highly contested major river diversion schemes with a new hydro-technical logic, centered on the construction of high-volume desalination plants on the Mediterranean coast as the means to manage Spain's recurrent water crisis. The desalination of seawater has indeed become one of the contested terrains for managing hydro-scarcities. This article teases out the heterogeneous and often conflicting post-1980s assembling of heterogeneous human and nonhuman agents around desalination as a new socioecological fix for Spain.

The broader intellectual objective of the article is, first, to explore how diverse political projects, social visions, the materialities of water, ecological concerns, cultural imaginaries, discursive formations, institutional practices, and economic strategies of global competitiveness fuse together around specific hydro-technical infrastructures. Second, the article considers how desalination and the networks of actors sustaining its realization mark the transition from a state hydro-structural to a decentralized market environmentalist water framework. The article concludes that the assemblage of socionatural actors around the desalination fix and the “mobilization of the seas” continues to focus on increasing water supply and reproduces hydro-modernizing development despite affirmations of radical change.