Europe, Environment

Illegal irrigation threatens Spain’s biodiversity, water resources: Study

WWF found that more than 217,453 acres of Spain’s agricultural land being watered illegally

Alyssa McMurtry   | 19.10.2021
Illegal irrigation threatens Spain’s biodiversity, water resources: Study File Photo


The widespread illegal tapping of Spain’s aquifers for agricultural use is contributing to the overexploitation of the country’s water resources, a study by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) found on Tuesday.

The WWF found that around 88,000 hectares (217,453 acres) of agricultural land – an area 1.5 times larger than the city of Madrid – were being irrigated using water stolen from four of Spain’s main aquifers.

“Illegal water use is a crime against biodiversity… and also generates unfair competition between sustainable farmers and those who use water illegally,” the report said.

Spain, often called the “garden of Europe” is the leading producer of fruit and vegetables in the European Union. It has also overexploited its water resources more than any other European country, and that isn’t counting illegal usage, according to the WWF.

The aquifer hardest-hit by illegal usage is connected to the Tablas of Damiel wetlands, which have been sucked dry in recent years.

More than 25% of water extraction is illegal, according to WWF, with the equivalent of 62,300 football fields of nearby land being irrigated with stolen groundwater.

Both the European Commission and UNESCO have demanded that Spain take better care of the unique ecosystem.

‘Excessive groundwater extractions’

Aquifers of the Donana wetlands, a World Heritage Site and Europe’s top sanctuary for migrating birds, are also being illegally tapped for the cultivation of fruits like strawberries.

Earlier this year, the European Court of Justice ruled that Spain broke EU law in the park for its “excessive groundwater extractions.”

In the last 20 years, the WWF has detected more than 1,000 illegal wells in the area.

Around 20% of the water pulled from the main aquifer in the area of the Mar Menor is also illegally tapped, the WWF found.

This summer, the unique saltwater lagoon in Murcia turned bright green with algae, causing the mass death of fish in the water.

While the main cause of the ecological collapse in that area appears to be fertilizer pollution and other runoff from intense agricultural activity, the shrinking aquifers add to the problem.

In recent years, there has also been a “worrying decrease” in the aquifer of Los Arenales in central Spain.

Shady agricultural operations have used it illegally to irrigate the equivalent of 29,000 football fields. The aquifer has become polluted to the point where the water isn't apt for human consumption in some cases.

The WWF is calling on the Spanish government to better monitor and regulate illegal water usage.

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