Spain's vast network of illegal wells exposed after death of toddler

The death of a Spanish toddler who fell into an illegal borehole has put the country's water crisis in the spotlight. It's estimated that there are more than 1 million illegal wells in Spain.

Rescue teams dug for two weeks in the Andalusian countryside to try to save a boy who fell down one of Spain's many illegal wells. The 2-year-old Julen Rosello was found dead in an open borehole in the town of Totalan, near Malaga. 

Based on surveys of known illegal wells, researchers have estimated that there are more than 1 million of these unauthorized wells dotting the country. They are known locally as pozos luneros, or "moonshine wells," because they are often dug by the light of the moon when authorities are not watching.

Spain is drying out

Illegal wells are not a new phenomenon. Farmers have been using them for decades to irrigate their crops, as water gets harder to come by.

Along with the rest of Europe, Spain experienced a heat wave in the summer of 2018. Rain was already scarce in the region even before last year. Between 2016 and 2017, rainfall was down 12 percent. In 2017, a quarter of the nation's districts were considered to be in an "emergency situation" due to a lack of water. 

Nature and Environment | 04.02.2019

Underground reservoirs have also seen record lows. In the spring of 2017, water reservoirs sunk to their lowest levels in decades, holding just 43 percent of their capacity. Usually they are at 60 percent during this time of year. 

The problem is not likely to improve any time soon. 

Karte Zustand des spanischen Grundwassers EN

Not only does drought threaten Spain's water supply, it also leads to a decrease in hydropower production. With less hydropower being produced by Spain's rivers, the country is forced to rely more heavily on coal and natural gas. This emits more CO2, thus further contributing to climate change, which intensifies drought conditions.

A Greenpeace report projected that 75 percent of the country is susceptible to desertification. Scientists warn that all of southern Spain could become a desert by the end of this century.

Thirsty strawberries for export

Countries in southern Europe provide produce to the rest of Europe. Tomatoes, lettuce, peaches, pears, and one-third of the continent's strawberries are grown in southern Spain. Rice, a water-intensive crop, is also grown along the Guadalquivir delta in the region.

Spain's strawberry industry is a €400 million a year business

Around the time that groundwater began to be regulated in Spain in the mid to late 1980s, Spanish strawberry production and rice farming were picking up. As these crops needed more water, farmers started digging both authorized wells — but used more than their allowed quota — as well as building completely unregistered, illegal wells.

Related Subjects

When water regulations changed in 1985, requiring landowners to register their wells, many with existing wells simply did not bother to do so, explains Nuria Hernandez-Mora, a water policy researcher and member of La Fundacion Nueva Cultura del Agua (the New Water Culture Foundation).

Infografik illegale Wasserentnahme in Spanien EN

Unsustainable water use in southern Spain even led some UK grocery stores and international food companies to put pressure on the local government and strawberry growers in the area to change their irrigation habits.

Government response and local pushback

Illegal water use has not entirely escaped punishment though. In the last two years, local authorities in Andalusia have opened 943 cases for groundwater diversion, half of which were in Huelva, the strawberry capital of Spain. The government are able to fine perpetrators up to €1 million ($1.15 million).

"The problem of wells and illegal water catchments should be the subject of coordination between administrations, along with collaboration and good citizenship," Alfonso Rodriguez Gomez de Celis, a delegate of the Spanish Government in Andalusia, told DW in writing. 

Such a call for collaboration and cooperation is not just government rhetoric. There has been public pushback in the country when local governments tried to crack down on those siphoning water illegally.

Infografik illegale Brunnen EN

Last September, an environmental agent for the local water management authority Confederacion Hidrografica del Guadalquivir was patrolling for illegal wells in Huelva when residents harassed him to the point that he locked himself in his car and called the police.

Hernandez-Mora identified agribusiness as the main culprit for illegal water extraction and said they have been "used to doing what they want for a really, really long time."

Stealing water from a national park

Huelva also lies directly next to Donana National Park. Just last week, the European Commission referred Spain to the Court of Justice of the EU for its failure to protect groundwater resources in the Donana Wetlands, part of the national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The commission blamed water diversions on agriculture and tourism.

"The Commission is now concerned that the condition of the wetlands is likely to deteriorate further, as Spain is falling short of its obligations," an EU Commission spokesperson told DW. "The measures in place to ensure the sustainable management of water resources and the conservation of the Donana habitats are insufficient and poorly implemented."

Donana National Park is home to the Iberian lynx and the imperial eagle, and serves as a stop for migratory birds

The park, known for its wetlands and the wildlife that inhabits them, has seen a sharp decrease in its natural water supply.

The World Wildlife Fund has been raising the alarm about unsustainable water practices in the area for years. In 2016, they pointed to an estimated 1,000 illegal wells in the surrounding area, sucking water resources away from the national park.

"The future of Donana is uncertain if the authorities do not urgently take action," Rafael Seiz Puyuelo, a technical expert for WWF Spain's freshwater program, told DW. "This means that they must reduce the abstraction from the aquifer, they have to limit the expansion of intensive agriculture around it, and they have to take actions to ensure that the needs of water and space of these wetlands are met."

Avoiding future tragedy

Addressing Spain's water crisis and the problem of illegal wells is not easy, but there are potential solutions. Desalinization could be one option. Choosing more efficient crops and adopting more sustainable watering practices is another. The EU has also made funding available under their Rural Development Program for farmers in affected areas like Andalusia.

Hernandez-Mora explains that at the national level, the government needs to foster more cooperation between the river basin authorities monitoring wells, and those making rules for water use and agricultural policy.

At the European level, she also sees a need for better synchronization between agriculture and water policy. She gives the example of not providing subsidies to farmers who are found to have illegal wells.

The European Commission's recent court case suggests that enforcement is the main issue.

"At the end, really what you need is the political will to actually enforce legislation," said Hernandez-Mora. "The collapse is around the corner." 

Global desert: Drought turning the planet into a tinderbox

Australia: 'Land of drought'

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, addressing the drought in the state of New South Wales, which produces one-quarter of the country's agricultural output, said, "Now we are the land of drought." Australia recently passed legislation to provide hundreds of millions of dollars worth of relief aid to farmers, including funds for mental health support.

Global desert: Drought turning the planet into a tinderbox

Ethiopia: The end of nomadic life?

Ethiopia has been suffering from ongoing drought conditions since 2015, causing massive food shortages. The Ethiopian government said that some 8.5 million citizens required emergency food assistance in 2017 and that nearly 400,000 infants suffered acute malnutrition. Furthermore, the drought threatens to end traditional nomadic herding in the region.

Global desert: Drought turning the planet into a tinderbox

South Africa: The looming prospect of Day Zero

Conservation and late-season rains saved South Africa's Cape Town from an apocalyptic Day Zero scenario, in which water would have to be turned off and emergency rations issued, The drought, which was one of the worst in decades, emptied water reservoirs and caused some experts to suggest hauling icebergs from Antarctica avert a crisis.

Global desert: Drought turning the planet into a tinderbox

Europe: Withering crops

Europe's sweltering heat has been compounded by a lack of rain. Not only have citizens been suffering the health consequences, which affect health care systems and labor productivity, crops have also been hit hard. Farmers across the continent fear bankruptcy due to poor crops and the EU Joint Research Center predicts "an increase in drought frequency and intensity in the future."

Global desert: Drought turning the planet into a tinderbox

Greece: Lost villages reappear as crops die

Greece has been facing the dual problem of flash flooding in some regions and drought in others. Crete's farmers said they could lose up to 40 percent of their crop this year due to an extremely dry winter. Though they are watering, they say it is not enough to nourish their crops. Water levels are so low that previously submerged villages have begun to reappear in reservoirs across the country.

Global desert: Drought turning the planet into a tinderbox

Sweden: Worst drought since 1944

Sweden, which has not seen rain for over three months, is experiencing its worst drought since 1944. The situation threatens to cause severe crop losses costing farmers hundreds of thousands of euros. Sweden has been the site of massive forest fires and has even seen temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Arctic Circle.

Global desert: Drought turning the planet into a tinderbox

UK: 'Tinderbox conditions'

The United Kingdom fears serious threats to its food supply chain due to the effects of this summer's drought. The country's National Farmers Union said the country is experiencing "tinderbox conditions." This adds to problems brought on by the prospect of needed self-reliance in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Global desert: Drought turning the planet into a tinderbox

India: Running out of water

India has been plagued by water shortages due to rising population and mismanagement but also aggravated by drought, causing many areas of the country to run out of water. Bangalore was recently added to the list of global cities most likely to run out of drinking water. Other cities on the list include Cape Town, South Africa; Jakarta, Indonesia and Sao Paolo, Brazil.

Global desert: Drought turning the planet into a tinderbox

USA: Back to the Dust Bowl

The US government said 29 percent of the country is currently experiencing drought, with conditions affecting some 75 million people. Although wildfires in California have captured the world's attention, farming states, like Kansas, have once again been suffering. Kansas was one of the states crippled by the famous 1930s Dust Bowl.