In Spanish nature reserves, large amounts of underground water are illegally extracted for the intensive cultivation of fruit and vegetables. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), in 2019 this involved no less than 220 million cubic metres.
That is enough to fill 65,000 Olympic swimming pools or provide drinking water for half the population of the Madrid region for a year. With the illegally extracted water in 2019, 88,000 hectares of agricultural land have been irrigated.
These are the underground water basins of the natural parks of Las Tablas de Daimiel (Castile-La Mancha) and Doñana (Andalucia). The Mar Menor (Murcia) and Los Arenales (Castile and León) are also experiencing the harmful effects of intensive agriculture. In all four cases, these are nature reserves of great ecological value and have even been designated as protected areas.
Rafael Seiz of the WWF water program is deeply concerned because as he says, this is only what is visible. Who knows what other abuses there might be? With the current climate change, the underground water basins are the only guarantee for the nature areas to survive in severe drought. According to Seiz, it is, therefore, time to put a stop to the intensive agriculture that requires excessive water use.
No control of water use
WWF also finds it worrying that the regional authorities, which are responsible for issuing permits, have no idea of the amount of water that is illegally extracted from the nature reserves. Simply because they have no control system in place for this. In addition, governments are issuing far more permits than they should in order to protect the ecosystems in these areas.
According to WWF, at least 51,465 hectares of agricultural land is illegally watered around the Las Tablas de Daimiel nature park alone. That is an area equivalent to 62,300 football fields. In total, both illegally and legally, 174,514 hectares of agricultural land are provided with tapped groundwater. The condition of the wetland has deteriorated to such an extent that by the end of September only 21 of the 1,750 hectares were underwater and emergency wells had to be tapped. This was necessary to prevent the peat from burning and to ensure that migratory birds do not have to land on dry ground.
The underground basins in the Doñana Natural Park are mainly used for watering red fruit crops. In 2020, 21 cubic hectometers were illegally extracted from this area to water 4,729 hectares of agricultural land. That is an area the size of 5,700 football fields. The consequences of intensive farming are disastrous. The park has lost 80% of its wetlands and 90% of its seasonal lagoons since the beginning of the 21st century.
In the Mar Menor, something else is going on. On the contrary, abundant underground water flows here, which comes from intensive agriculture in Campo de Cartagena. This water is full of nitrates and other toxic substances that come not only from agriculture but also from livestock. This causes serious oxygen deficiency in the Mar Menor, which has already caused large fish deaths several times.
Large-scale extraction of underground water is causing a drastic decrease in water in rivers and wetlands. This, in turn, has catastrophic consequences for important ecosystems. The underground water barely even comes to the surface here. WWF, therefore, urges the Spanish authorities to tackle this ‘ecological offense’ by closing all illegal water abstractions, amending the water law, and using the manpower and resources to monitor the over-irrigation of agricultural areas.