Flooding Zaragoza: ring road and school built in watercourse

by Lorraine Williamson
Zaragoza flooding

ZARAGOZA – During severe flooding in Zaragoza last week, at least 10 people had to be rescued from the roofs of their cars, from their cars or managed to save themselves by clinging to roadside trees. Furthermore, a school was also completely flooded. 

Now the Association of Geographers indicates it was a mistake to place the ring road (Tercer Cinturón Z30) and the María Zambrano school on a watercourse. Residents remember warning the government about the risk at the time, but their objections were ignored. 

Also read: These Spanish coastal towns will be under water within 60 years 

The images of cars being dragged like toys by the fast-flowing water and people bravely trying to defy the current are shocking, but according to experts, not unexpected. It could have ended much worse, because this time, apart from a massive fright and a lot of material damage, no people were injured or worse. At the time, many warned of this risk because the watercourse regularly turned into a swirling river when there was a lot of rainfall. 

Barranco de la Muerte 

Inaugurated in 2002 after years of planning, the Z30 ring road is built on the bed of the Barranco de la Muerte, a watercourse dating back to the 12th century. Both the ring road and some of the surrounding buildings are therefore in a high-risk location. For more than two decades, concerned citizens have tried to avoid this, demonstrating, meeting with politicians and even travelling to Madrid to voice their concerns. However, despite all efforts, their warnings went unheeded. 

Wrong to build there 

Rafael Martínez, president of the College of Geographers of Aragón, admits it was a mistake to build there. In heavy rains, such as the one that occurred recently, the water can suddenly rise and sweep everything in the river bed with it. Paco Iturbe, environmental educator and member of Ecologistas en Acción, agrees, emphasising that the watercourse simply followed its natural path. The small channel intended for drainage was not sufficient for a cloudburst of this size. 

Not the first warning 

This recent flood is not the first warning. Even 50 and 20 years ago, when the area was less built-up, the watercourse already showed how severe the consequences of a lot of precipitation could be. Martínez and Iturbe compare this with the tragic events of the disaster at campsite Las Nieves in Biescas on August 7, 1996. After a heavy cloudburst, the entire campsite next to the Barranco de Arias (Huesca) – with 600 guests at that time – was flooded with no fewer than 87 dead and more than 180 injured. Such dramas and also the event in Zaragoza should be a warning for future cases. 

Cogesa Expats

Affected buildings must be removed 

If one wants to prevent a recurrence, the question arises what can be done now? Martínez does not hesitate and states on Lamarea.com that the affected buildings must be removed. Changing the course of the watercourse is not enough. He also advocates activating warning systems so that the ring road can be closed when necessary. Moreover, the construction of a stormwater reservoir and cleaning of the watercourse are further measures that must be taken. 

Warning system 

Iturbe agrees that the ring road should be closed in exceptional storms. He refers to another neighbourhood in Zaragoza, Actur, which is also in a flood zone. The last flood took place in 1961, but nothing had been built at the time. If people are warned and prepared, serious consequences can be avoided. 

School almost completely wiped out 

The residents of Parque Venecia, especially the parents of the school children, are concerned about the María Zambrano School after the flood. This school, located on the natural bend of the watercourse, was almost completely swept away by the water. Thankfully the school was empty during the flood. Otherwise, it would have been a much greater tragedy if children had been inside. 

It has now become clear that a temporary solution is not enough and that action must be taken to prevent such disasters from happening again in the future. Attention should be paid to spatial planning and urban planning, including the avoidance of high-risk areas. Warning systems also need to be improved. 

1,342 areas at risk of flooding in Spain 

According to research by the National Cartographic System of Floodplains of the Ministry of Ecological Transition, Spain has 1,342 areas where there is a potential flood risk. The risk is significant in 850 of those areas and 450 areas are on the coast. Often it concerns buildings close to or even partly in watercourses, as is the case in Zaragoza. 

Other research shows that 50,000 homes in Spain are built in high flood-risk areas. Rules for building in those high-risk areas were only drawn up in Spain after the real estate bubble of 2008. And in 2011, the Spanish government mapped out for the first time which places could be at risk in floods that could occur once every ten, one hundred or five hundred years. These maps are updated every six years to reflect the latest insights into the climate. 

Also read: Flood Notification System Google Flood Hub now also in Spain 

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