A person pushes a cart around a corner. Inside, several empty jugs that in the next few minutes will be filled with water from a public fountain. The operation lasts several minutes, the button that makes the liquid flow is pressed dozens of times, the old carafes swell and flatten slightly due to the weight of the water inside. Although it is impossible to know exactly how many people are supplied from public water sources, this is today a reality present in municipalities throughout the country. What will become of them when the drought makes it even more difficult for us?
The PP spokesman in Chamartín (Madrid), Francisco Montoro, brought up the image last April at the District Municipal Board: "Sometimes when we open a fountain, we have a neighbor who tells us why it has been opened that fountain, because it attracts homeless people, because it attracts people who come to drink water and feel bad about it”. Montoro forgot that the right to water is included in international human rights regulations signed by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, and that as such, it is a resource to be protected. Pausanias, a Greek traveler and historian who described in detail all the fountains he came across, already said: a city is not a city if it does not have a fountain for public consumption.
Samuel Gurmey, a member of the British Parliament, knew it well: in London, where epidemics of cholera due to contaminated water were the order of the day in the 19th century, in 1859 he founded the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, which promoted both the creation as the protection of drinking water sources for humans and livestock. It was considered social progress that everyone had access to water of the same quality, says Peter H. Gleick, a professor at Oakland's Pacific Institute, in his book Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water (Island Press: 2010), who considers that the disappearance of water sources would only increase the sales of bottled water, which today already represents a big problem: "they generate a lot of plastic, a large carbon footprint, waste, and the energy cost to produce them is huge, both to make the plastic bottles and to transport them around the world.” It is not surprising that the city of Venice, as AFP reported in the summer of 2022, asks tourists to drink water from its 126 fountains instead of buying bottled water, since visitors alone generate 40% of their waste.
As stated by the Barcelona City Council, "drinking water is considered an essential public service for the city". To avoid waste, they explain that the 1,722 drinking water fountains managed by the City Council —specifically, by the Barcelona Ciclo del Agua company—, whose location can be consulted in the Fonts BCN app, have devices to prevent water loss and which, in addition, receive constant maintenance. “The drought decree does not apply any restrictive measure on the use of drinking fountains as they are considered an essential public service. In addition, it should be taken into account that the closure of these sources would not generate large water savings. The volumes supplied by the fountains in Barcelona are around 150,000 m³ per year, with minimum values of 8,000 m³ in the winter months and 15,000 m³ in the hottest months.
Neither Canaletes nor Santa Anna (the oldest in Barcelona, inaugurated in 1356) are the most used. "There are 250 sources with the highest consumption, close to 10 m³ per month, but none in particular stands out," commented from the City Council. On the other hand, there is no data on the type of users who use them the most. However, it is known that they are a valued asset by the community: "When any source records an incident, it is the residents of each neighborhood who notify us about it."
Despite the fact that the Drought Plan does not establish any limitation on water from urban fountains for consumption, as explained by the Catalan Water Agency (they specify that prohibitions on filling ornamental fountains have been established), in In the first months of 2023, different Catalan municipalities such as Vallromanes or Premià de Dalt have decided to close all public fountains, Lleida the few with continuous flow that it maintains, and Montcada i Reixac —historically famous for its springs and its Rec Comtal, which it plans to supply Barcelona– 50% its drinking water sources.
The reason? Contribute to preventive savings in the face of the exceptional episode of drought that has plagued Catalonia since 2020. These municipalities benefit from the emergency plans for saving water that all Catalan towns with more than 20,000 inhabitants have been forced to draw up. “The water from the fountains comes from the municipal water network and the competence of the municipal supply falls on the town halls. In this sense, a municipality can decide if it closes the sources with the aim of reducing consumption ”, they state from the Agency, which does not have data on the number of municipalities that have made this decision.
Anthropologist, writer and professor at the University of Barcelona, Mercedes Fernández-Martorell, specialized in urban anthropology, recalls that "control over water has to do with the distribution of power in a society and that each society has a culture and a particular logic regarding water, in our case and in part, of Greco-Roman heritage”.
The fact that it is considered a public good available, to a certain extent, on public roads, says a lot about our society: people who do not have the means to pay for their own water will be able to resort to public fountains. “If public fountains closed, it would not be perceived as a risk, since risk is linked to the lifestyle of a society and today most of us do not use fountains. However, implicitly, it would be an alarming sign because it refers to drought.
The anthropologist also points out that the fountains are used differently in each city: the dryness of the summer in Madrid and the lack of a beach make the fountains more important, as is the case in Rome, where the nasoni are essential. in the heat of heat and in which locals, tourists, dogs and other animals are soaked to face the high temperatures.