Spain sucked dry by illegal water use

Posted on 11 May 2006

A new WWF report shows that illegal irrigation, particularly the drilling of boreholes, is being funded by EU subsidies.
Madrid, Spain – Spain has over half a million illegal boreholes used to irrigate agricultural land, often supported by EU agricultural subsidies, according to a new WWF report.

The report — Illegal Water Use in Spain: Causes, Effects and Solutions — identifies that this illegal irrigation is funded by subsidies paid out through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

In a country that is suffering severe water shortages (2004–2005 was the driest year in the past 125 years), this high degree of illegal water abstraction makes it impossible for water to be used wisely and has negative effects on the environment as well as urban and agricultural water users.

“It is totally unacceptable that CAP subsidies are granted to farmers that are using water illegally," said Guido Schmidt, head of WWF-Spain's freshwater programme. "This means that public money is supporting the over-exploitation of precious water resources.”

Spain receives more agricultural subsidies than any other European country (with the exception of France), with some €6.6 billion distributed directly to olive, rice or cotton farmers and indirectly to the modernization of farming infrastructures. Over decades, these subsidies have driven agricultural production and irrigation, stimulating farmers to produce ever more and leading to the drilling of more illegal boreholes.

The Spanish Environment Ministry estimates that there is a total of 510,000 illegal boreholes, many concentrated in southern Spain and the Segura River basin in the southeast part of the country.

In order to address the growing criticisms and concerns of the CAP the EU introduced a cross compliance mechanism in 2005, which links the payment of direct CAP subsidies to the number of good environmental agricultural procedures practiced by farmers. In Spain, cross compliance includes a reduction of the subsidy if irrigation water is obtained illegally, but this requirement applies only to aquifers that have been officially declared as "over-exploited" — about 15 out of 411 in the entire country.

Only one case of a farmer being penalized under cross compliance for illegal boreholes was reported to WWF by the Spanish regional governments.

WWF is requesting that the Spanish Agriculture Ministry and Spanish regional governments urgently modify cross-compliance requirements and ensure that no more CAP subsidies are paid to illegal irrigators.

This means applying water compliance to all waters in Spain (and not only in over-exploited aquifers) and to all direct and indirect CAP subsides, as well as increasing the number of inspections to verify compliance in the field.


• The Water Framework Directive (WFD) is the most substantial piece of EC water legislation to date. It requires all inland and coastal waters to reach "good status" by 2015. It will do this by establishing a river basin district structure within which demanding environmental objectives will be set, including ecological targets for surface waters.

• EU Member States define the minimum requirements for good environmental and agricultural practices, and the specific inspection systems to ensure their correct application. In Spain, compliance applies only to direct CAP payments, which means that several sectors that receive significant indirect payments are not controlled. Compliance includes the requirement of having a water use permit only in aquifers that have been officially declared as overexploited.

• According to official data published in 1998, there are 77 overexploited aquifers in the river basins that are managed by the Spanish Ministry for the Environment. Out if these, only 15 have been officially declared as ‘overexploited’.

For further information:
Alexandra Hartridge, Press Officer
Tel: +41 1483 412347
Spain receives some €6.6 billion in agricultural subsidies that are distributed directly to olive, rice or cotton farmers. Traditional irrigation by flooding the fields in Orihuela, Murcia, Spain.
© Guido Schmidt / WWF-Spain