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Spain's Expo 2008 on world water opens

ZARAGOZA, Spain (Reuters) - Expo 2008, themed on the world’s dwindling water resources, opened in the Spanish city of Zaragoza on Saturday, days after the riverside site narrowly escaped flooding.

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King Juan Carlos officially opened the 25-hectare (62-acre) exhibition on Friday night. Organizers hope 6.5 million people will visit before it closes in mid-September, providing a major economic boost to the northern city, Spain’s fifth largest.

“I believe that the hope of a new vision for water, which is what the Zaragoza Expo is all about, is one of the world’s great needs,” Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said at the opening ceremony.

Hundreds were already queuing when Expo opened its gates to the public and Mexican President Felipe Calderon was on hand to open his country’s stand during an official visit to Spain.

Ironically, the site was almost flooded last month during Spain’s wettest May in decades, provoking a frantic finish to construction that began three years after Zaragoza beat Greek and Italian rivals for the right to host the event.

The first visitors on Saturday crossed from the city to the Expo site via a futuristic bridge, built by Baghdad-born architect Zaha Hadid, across the Ebro, Spain’s biggest river.

The Expo features Europe’s biggest fresh water aquarium, a 76-metre (250-ft) water tower and 140 pavilions, themed around different climate zones and representing 105 countries.

Organizers stress Expo’s environmentally friendly credentials. The site is four times smaller than that built for Seville when Spain last hosted an Expo in 1992, and even the tourist shop’s carrier bags are made of potato starch.

Two thousand environmental experts will produce a “Zaragoza Charter” outlining recommendations to solve problems such as the lack of clean water for 1.2 billion people and the danger of wars fought over dwindling water resources.

But Expo has its critics, notably environmental campaign group Greenpeace, which is not taking part..

“Thousands of square meters of roads, buildings and bridges have been built, paradoxically created in the defense of nature, which in addition will be used to attract thousands of visitors,” a Greenpeace statement said.

In many parts of Spain last winter was the driest since 1948/49 and the nearby city of Barcelona almost imposed water rationing.

The three-month extravaganza cost 700 million euros ($1.07 billion) to build, most of the money coming from central government. For Zaragoza it has already proved a boon thanks to government spending on associated road and rail projects.

“Zaragoza was stuck, dead, and this will be fantastic for infrastructure and tourism,” one veteran taxi driver said.

Writing by Ben Harding; editing by Robert Hart