I'm not sure who is teaching who, but Expansión reports Spain has signed a technology transfer agreement ($) with China to improve the management of China's scarce water resources.

China faces many environmental challenges, but perhaps the most pressing problem is the lack of clean water.

The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge To China's FutureElizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think-tank, paints a depressing picture in her recent book “The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge To China's Future.”

Pollution and poor water management means 60m Chinese do not have a dependable water supply and 600m drink contaminated water.

Desertification is a huge problem and the overpumping of groundwater is causing more Chinese to migrate to the cities.

Clearly, there has to be a better way.

But Spain is hardly the best role model when it comes to managing scarce water resources. The country's Mediterranean coast is saturated with urbanizaciones, golf courses and intensive agriculture, the result of laissez-faire planning in the past which took no account of the overstretched local water supplies.

In the days when Spain was a dictatorship, the answer was simple: build a dam and pipe the water hundreds of kms to the areas where it was most needed.

But such pharaonic water projects are firmly in the past. Today, they get questioned on environmental grounds and face huge political opposition from Spain's wetter regions in the north, which resent having to “donate” water to their profligate Mediterranean neighbours.

Last year, Spain's socialist government finally abandoned the idea of big projects in favour of dotting the country's arid southern coast with small-scale desalination plants.

Environmentalists throw up their hands in horror at the idea of burning fossil fuels to make electricity to convert salt water to clean. Many experts also question the economics of desalination.

Nevertheless, in the absence of any real alternative, Spain has opted to deploy desalination in a big way.

Desalination technology is thus the main focus of the agreement with China, although Spain's environmental ministry also talks about showing China how to recycle water and use modern irrigation techniques — many would argue that these are areas where Spain itself has much to learn.

Next year, the ministry plans to organise a trade mission to bring together Spanish and Chinese businesses involved in water management.

($) in Spanish, subscription required

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