The Hydrographic Confederation of the Ebro under Primo de Rivera, 1926-1930: Dams, canals and new regional identities

Joel Baker

The fifth of March 1926 marked an important day for Spanish civil and agricultural engineering. The government of dictator General Miguel Primo de Rivera published two Royal Decrees comprehensively reforming water management and irrigation administration. Primo had come to power following his coup of 13 September 1923, denouncing ‘immorality’ in Spain’s politics and ‘social indiscipline’ on the streets, and promising ‘rapid and radical remedies’ to the country’s multiple economic, social, political and military crises.[I] His new government, composed mostly of civilians, appointed in January 1926, was now turning its attention to developing such remedies in agricultural policy.

The first Decree described anew kind of organisation responsible for planning and implementing water management works. The Syndical Hydrographic Confederations (Confederaciones sindicales hidrográficas; CSH) would take responsibility for agricultural planning in each of Spain’s river basins.[ii] This marked a departure from the previous system, both by taking entire river basins as the administrative unit, and by making the Confederations simultaneously responsible for agricultural policy and planning beyond the construction of dams, canals and similar.

The second Decree established the first Confederation in the Ebro river basin.[iii] The country’s largest river system, the Ebro drains one seventh of Spain’s landmass, and covers – among others – the vast majority of the region of Aragon, which had a long history of campaigning for new irrigation works.[iv] Manuel Lorenzo Pardo, the first technical director of the CSH of the Ebro (CSHE), was a prominent figure in Aragonese society and – like Primo de Rivera’s Minister of Development, the Count of Guadalhorce – a great proponent of the Confederations.

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View over the Barasona reservoir in the twenty-first century (work started in October 1926, completed in 1932). Via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

One innovation of the CSHE was the publication, starting in July 1927, of a monthly magazine through which the Confederation aimed to promote the regime’s rural policy and contribute to the education of the ruralpopulation, a priority for the regime.[v] Notably, the magazine also articulated a new kind of regional identity, defined by geography rather than political boundaries, based on the supposedly shared economic interests of all inhabitants of the Ebro basin. This was located firmly within the bounds of primorriverista Spanish nationalism, which considered Spanish unity to be non-negotiable, but was also underpinned by the mobilisation of the ‘respectable’, conservative ‘vital forces’ (fuerzas vivas) of municipal and provincial life.[vi]

The Confederation of the Ebro held particular significance in this regard. Although centred on Aragon, it also covered significant parts of the two regions which had, since the second half of the nineteenth century, posed the greatest challenges to integrative Spanish nationalism: the Basque Country and Catalonia. Both regions had experienced a greater degree of industrialisation than the rest of the predominantly agrarian country, and regional nationalist movements had emerged in both, among the industrial bourgeoisie in Catalonia and primarily in smaller towns in the Basque Country.[vii] Just as visceral opposition to the Catalan independence movement has been a factor in the remobilisation of Spain’s extreme right since October 2017, so Primo had justified his coup with reference to rising nationalist agitation in Barcelona.[viii]

The Confederation associated parts of these regions with Aragon, and publications such as the CSHE magazine could use this to develop an ‘imagined community’ which rendered them self-evidently Spanish and neutralised the challenge they posed to centralist nationalism.[ix] The union of the crowns of Aragon and Castile in the late fifteenth century had been key to the formation of the kingdom of Spain, and regime rhetoric strongly identified Aragon with Spanish national feeling. In a speech during Primo de Rivera’s visit to the works at the La Violada canal in the Gállego valley in August 1926, the CSHE’s Royal Delegate reminded his audience that the region was the ‘cradle of Spanish citizenry’.[x] In the summer of 1928, Lorenzo Pardo made a speech in Santander, in which he argued – in a prolific display of dubious reasoning – that ‘The movement [in favour of the Confederations] was born in Aragon, because Aragon is the heart of Spain’.[xi]

The Ebro itself could also be used as a byword for Spanish-ness. The Latin name of the river – ‘Hiber’ or ‘Iberus’ – is also the root of the modern Spanish and English names for the Iberian peninsula. Trading on this, the CSHE’s publications identified it as ‘the national river par excellence’.[xii] They likened the river to a ‘father’, taken to ‘incarnate and represent Spanish nationality’.[xiii] The customs and traditions of the river basin’s inhabitants were described as ‘typically national’.[xiv]

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Crowds gather to hear Primo de Rivera and other dignitaries speak in Alcañiz, during a campaign publicising the foundation of the CSHE. Heraldo de Aragón, 23/3/1926, p. 3 [Held at Hemeroteca Municipal de Madrid]

One means by which the CSHE magazine imagined a regional community incorporating Aragon, the Basque Country, Catalonia, Navarre and parts of Castile was through its cover illustrations. Early issues featured illustrations of hydrological works on the Ebro and its tributaries. Yet the canals, dams and reservoirs are not the sole feature – the reader’s eye is drawn at least as much to the impressive scenery of the Ebro basin.[xv]

These landscapes functioned as ‘visual encapsulations’ of and naturalised the unity of the people who lived in the Ebro valley, and their engineering of the countryside through the CSHE.[xvi] They presented what John Agnew, in connection with ‘typically’ English landscapes, has called ‘the “invented” ideal of a created and ordered landscape, with deep roots in a past in which everyone also knew their places’.[xvii]

Later issues adopted anthropomorphised allegories of the different rivers managed by the CSHE, sometimes represented in the style of classical deities, but more often as men and women in traditional peasant garb, going about their business as shepherds, fruit-pickers or wood-cutters.[xviii] The magazine expanded on these with (often poetic) descriptions of the river valleys and their population, the public works planned for them, and their scenery, explaining their place within the Ebro river system and the Confederation’s plans.

In representing the different communities of the river basin in this way, the magazine created a sense of familiarity between them, emphasising what they had in common (the Ebro, the Confederation, and the national government which had given them the Confederation) and allowing readers to locate themselves and their localities within this wider community. By presenting an idealised version of the population’s everyday lives in this way, it created a sense within the region of the ‘deep, horizontal comradeship’ which Benedict Anderson has identified with nationalising discourses.[xix]

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Map of the territory covered by the CSHE, here showing a proposed network of weather stations. Publicaciones de la Confederación Sindical Hidrográfica del Ebro, XV – Plan general de ordenación y funcionamiento, 1928, insert between pp. 60 & 61 [held at Biblioteca Municipal de Zaragoza].

The use of geographic rather than political boundaries in defining the Confederation’s area of responsibility meant that this community could be presented as more natural than the division of the Ebro basin between political regions. As the magazine’s first issue put it, they would unite ‘all the representatives of the basin for a common goal and a general harmonious interest’.[xx] Elsewhere, the Confederation was portrayed as an attempt to make Spain’s ‘economic and political constitutions’ ‘coincide’ for the first time in its history – the ‘economic constitution’ being embodied by rivers and watercourses.[xxi]

Furthermore, the CSHE made much of the notion that ‘Basques, Navarrese, Aragonese, and Catalans are united around the desire’ to make the Confederation’s vision reality.[xxii] Pursuing this desire meant that the inhabitants of the Ebro basin would have to act as one community. Minister for Development Guadalhorce claimed that the Confederations would prevent ‘villages with no cooperative spirit’ from campaigning for reservoirs where they would most benefit themselves. Instead, the Confederations would ‘distribute [resources], harmonise and coordinate [economic interests]’, and ‘the water will go where it is needed, without depriving others’.[xxiii]

If all citizens’ economic interests were as mutually compatible as Guadalhorce maintained (however implausible the assertion), then this new regional division could be presented as a natural and harmonious community, free of the ‘destabilising’ socio-economic and political conflicts – strikes, Catalan nationalist mobilisation, and street violence between anarcho-syndicalists and state-sponsored blackleg unions – which Primo de Rivera claimed to have taken over government to prevent.[xxiv]

Public works under Primo de Rivera were no merely technical affair. The CSHs extended primorriveristaeconomic corporatism into the countryside, encouraging citizens to imagine themselves within pliant, apolitical communities. They created new ways in which citizens could identify with their region and, by extension, the Spanish nation whose collective will the dictatorship claimed to represent.

Joel Baker is about to start his third year as a PhD student at the University of Sheffield’s Department of History. His thesis studies public works and housing policy under the Primo de Rivera dictatorship (1923-1930) as a locus for debates about and changing conceptions of the role of the state in Spanish society during the 1920s. His research is funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities. You can follow him on Twitter at @joelrbaker.


[I] See Primo’s ‘Manifesto to the Country and the Army’ of 13 September 1923, Leandro Álvarez Rey (ed.), Bajo el fuero militar: La Dictadura de Primo de Rivera en sus documentos (1923-1930), (Seville, 2006), pp. 56-58.

[ii] Gaceta de Madrid65, 6/3/1926, pp. 1248-1253.

[iii] Gaceta de Madrid, 65, 6/3/1926, pp. 1253-1255.

[iv] José Ramón Marcuello, Manuel Lorenzo Pardo, (Madrid, 1990), pp. 132-139.

[v] Alejandro Quiroga, Making Spaniards: Primo de Rivera and the Nationalization of the Masses, 1923–30 (Basingstoke, 2007), pp. 122-128.

[vi] See Mary Vincent, Spain 1833-2002: People and State, (Oxford, 2007), pp. 109-115.

[vii] Vincent, People and State, pp. 94-97.

[viii] In his first week in office, Primo published a decree outlawing regional nationalist symbols and protests, restricting the use of regional and minority languages, and bringing these offences under the jurisdiction of the military courts. See Álvarez Rey (ed.), Bajo el fuero militar, pp. 65-66.

[ix] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Spread of Nationalism, (third edition, London, 2006).

[x] Confederación Sindical Hidrográfica del Ebro, 1.3 (September 1927), p. 8.

[xi] Confederación Sindical Hidrográfica del Ebro, 2.13 (July 1928), p. 3.

[xii] Confederación Sindical Hidrográfica del Ebro, 1.5 (November 1927), p. 19.

[xiii] Confederación Sindical Hidrográfica del Ebro, 2.8 (February 1928), p. 4.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] See e.g. Confederación Sindical Hidrográfica del Ebro1.2 (August 1927); 1.3 (September 1927); 1.4 (October 1927).

[xvi] John Agnew, ‘European landscape and identity’ in Brian Graham (ed.), Modern Europe: Place, culture, identity(London, 1998), p. 214.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] See e.g. Confederación Sindical Hidrográfica del Ebro, 2.8 (February 1928); 2.11 (May 1928); 2.12 (June 1928); 2.14 (August 1928).

[xix] Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 7.

[xx] Confederación Sindical Hidrográfica del Ebro, 1.1 (July 1927), p. 2.

[xxi] Confederación Sindical Hidrográfica del Ebro, 1.3 (September 1927), p.3

[xxii] Ibid., p. 8.

[xxiii] Confederación Sindical Hidrográfica del Ebro, 1.2 (August 1927), p. 6.

[xxiv] Álvarez Rey, Bajo el fuero militar, p. 57.