Friday, June 20, 2008

Day 130. The World Expo in Zaragoza

This year the city of Zaragoza is hosting the World Expo, and I was intent on going and taking a look at it, not only because it is the World Expo, but also because this expo’s theme was water. So I woke up at an ungodly hour, took the metro to the bus terminal, and after 4 long hours of travel landed in Zaragoza. I remember being here 12 years ago, and being relatively unimpressed, so I was very favorably impressed by the modern infrastructure built for the expo.

It was great fun going from one pavilion to the next, in a condensed way doing again the tour of the world, but there was simply too much and I couldn’t see it all. The expo is really a tour de force in audiovisual presentation, and the problem is that some of the pavilions were relying on cool films or animatronics, which of necessity have to be presented to small groups of 10 to 30 people. The result is that in some of the very cool ones you could stand for an hour or two in line. Bad planning on the part of these countries if you ask me, because many people (me included) did not want to stand in line for so long (it was a very warm day, to add insult to injury). The Mexico pavilion had a prominent position right on front, but was not particularly memorable, and the Spain pavilion way in the back was so crowded that I had to skip it.

My favorite type of pavilion had a good flow of people, with cool displays where you could stop as long as you wanted, or simply browse through. Many of the “autonomías” or states of Spain had this type of pavilions, so I looked at many of them.

I am ambivalent about the content, and about what the expo might or might not accomplish. To start with, I am happy that everybody understands the value of water; the world seems to have just found out that water is the blood of development and healthy ecosystems and societies. On the other hand, we are still divided about what is the best way to manage water resources, and how to accomplish the millennium goal of making sure that all people in the world has access to an ample supply of good quality water. To murky things up, the word “sustainable” (which the Spaniards alternatively butcher into “sostenibilidad” or “sustentabilidad”) crops out in every other sentence, an evil marketing term that everyone uses for his or her own purposes (like “fat free” or “organic”). For some, well represented in the pavilions of countries with excess water, the term means going back to the 19th century, to an idyllic world without dams or agriculture, where “water is mine and I won’t share it with anyone else”. For others, well represented by countries with arid and semi-arid climates, the term means building storage dams, transferring water via canals over long distances, building water delivery infrastructure, and expanding irrigated agriculture under the motto “water belongs to all and needs to be shared”.

Europe, in general and not unlike the United States, would like to force all developing countries into avoiding the evils of development and staying in the 19th century, relishing their rural lifestyle and subsistence existence. Why dream on tractors or hydroelectric plants, when you are surrounded by the beauty of swamps or deserts, with their myriad of insects and birds? Spain, in particular, has taken the stand of the new-rich, who looks down his national nose at developing countries in total oblivion of the fact that not 50 years ago they were in the same group. What made the difference? Massive investment in development infrastructure by the European Union!

And it is going to take a lot of money to further development water resources throughout the world, but, alas, not a word is said throughout the expo on how all these development-conservation projects are to be accomplished. The European Union is producing new laws and regulations faster than the rate of desertification, in the belief that “regulation is the mother of invention”, and the Arab nations are building five-star oasis in the middle of the desert using oil money, but until water can be made to generate its own funds—through agriculture or power generation—there is no place for the truly needy to turn to. International aid is woefully insufficient, and is always dispensed with conditions: “I will give you this much with the condition that . . . you change your style of government . . . you adopt my religion . . . you don’t use DDT to manage your malaria problem . . . you don’t engage on nuclear energy generation . . . you don’t increase your use of oil. Also, international aid is not being complemented by in-country capacity building or fair trade practices, so we get back to the old quandary that if you give a man a fish he will eat today, but if you teach him how to fish he will eat for the rest of his life.

OK, I am down from my soap box. To finish here is a hypercool sculpture of a splash of water. It is huge, and hangs inside a large building called La Torre del Agua.

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