WP3: Spanish water scarcity

Final report: Santiago Ripoll, Tom MacMillan, Les Levidow, María Jesús Beltrán Muñoz, Esther Velázquez, Cristina Madrid López, Water scarcity and its virtual export from Spain to the UK, November 2010

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Executive Summary

This study analyses the contribution that food production makes to water scarcity and explores potential ways to alleviate the burden, by focusing on Almeria as a case study. It was carried out collaboratively by the Food Ethics Council (UK) and the Fundación Nueva Cultura del Agua (Spain), with a contribution from the Open University, especially on EU policy aspects.

Objectives include:

  • To study causes and impacts of water scarcity in Almeria (in Spain’s southeast), as a case study of a wider EU problem, in order to inform demand-side mitigation strategies.
  • To analyse different understandings of sustainable development which underlie policy conflicts over defining water-supply problems and evaluating possible solutions.

Southern Spain is one of the most water-stressed regions of Europe, exporting large volumes of water-intensive produce to other EU countries, including the UK. As the most arid province of Spain, Almeria is also the country’s most productive area in agriculture. Fifty-five percent of Almeria’s agricultural produce is exported; of that export, 90% goes to the EU. Since 1970, laws have been put in place to regulate the level of underground abstraction. Despite those laws, the area of irrigated land has continued to increase, and 63% of aquifers are over-exploited. The ‘thirstiest’ sub-sectors have been greenhouse farming in the southwest and open-area irrigated farming in the northeast of Almeria.

Policy frameworks for efficient water usage

Since its enactment in 2000, the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) has required local authorities to maintain water sources in a ‘good ecological status’. The WFD diagnoses water-supply problems from both poor quality and scarcity, whereby each problem can worsen the other. Member States must ‘ensure a balance between abstraction and recharge of groundwater, with the aim of achieving good groundwater status’ by 2015.

As an incentive for improving water quality, it requires ‘full cost recovery’ from water users, while allowing exceptions for economic difficulties if consistent with the overall ecological aims. There can be exceptions to ‘full cost recovery’ only if the environmental objectives are still met. These EU requirements have stimulated recent changes in Andalusia but also have tensions with them.

Tensions also arise from the EU policy emphasis on technological innovation for using water more efficiently and thus conserving water. Such measures are seen as alternatives to additional infrastructure for water supply, which should remain a last resort. It emphasises “technological innovation in the field of water, given that water efficiency will be an increasingly important factor for competitiveness” (CEC, 2008). For example, solutions should be found in ‘clean technologies that facilitate the efficient use of water’ (EP, 2008). Water-efficiency measures are already widespread among large agricultural producers in Almeria, but these measures bring incentives to increase the cultivated area and so increase overall usage of water, partly in order to recoup the investment. At best, such measures delay resource depletion, partly because they do not tackle the fundamental problem: consumption-led growth.

The creation of an independent body to administrate water resources — the Andalusian Water Agency — has represented a major step forward. The Agency can assess the ecological status of their water basins, derived from the structure and functioning of associated water ecosystems, in turn as a basis to develop action plans to address water quality. Through the new agency, EU guidelines are being integrated into regional law and regulations.

But this localisation faces many contradictions. The right incentives for sustainable use of water have not been reached: gains in water efficiency are translated into greater use of resources, in a classic ‘rebound effect’, for many reasons. Water allocation greatly exceeds water availability; strict price policies (for cost recovery) are politically too risky and are not fully implemented. Public authorities are not able (or willing) to carry out the necessary surveillance to ensure compliance with allocated volumes and prices, nor to ensure that increases in supply of desalinated water translate into less use of water from aquifers.

Desalinated water already has high costs which drive farmers to over-use their aquifers and only ‘top-up’ with desalinated water, which thereby contributes little to water conservation. There are no mechanisms to ensure desalinated water substitutes for aquifer water. Thus aquifer depletion will continue, leading to saline intrusion, undermining their structure and future capacity to hold water and buffer water ecosystems. Most importantly, due to the competitive ‘pull’ from external markets, producers have little incentive to save water in absolute terms. That is why production-perspective or supply-side approaches – focusing only on water use – have contributed little to water conservation.

As the main strategy to maintain or even increase water supplies, especially for agriculture, the regional authority plans to build more desalination plants. The change in supply-side policy— from water transfers to desalination — effectively ‘outsources’ environmental harms and societal responsibilities beyond the realm of water policy. Environmental impacts change in nature: from tangible effects (building infrastructure on site, reducing river flows, redirecting water flows, etc.) to environmental impacts that are less tangible – more carbon emissions aggravating climate change, as well as salt residues. It is relatively easy to attribute responsibility for environmental damage from local ‘solutions’ (such as water transfers), but much less so for impacts of desalination. Thus the water policy bodies and water users can less easily be held accountable.

Desalination also contradicts the WFD because cost-recovery is politically untenable. Farmers and water providers can easily mobilise public opinion against strict pricing policies. Cost recovery may be included in principle in the law, but it is unlikely to be implemented.

Demand-led initiatives

So what can be done to promote water conservation? Consumption-perspective or demand-led approaches assign some responsibility to those who consume products that are water-intensive. These perspectives bring supermarket supply chains and consumers into water governance debates. They introduce the concept of ‘virtual water’: the volume of water required to produce a commodity or service for export (Garnett 2008). Another useful concept is ‘water footprint’: the amount of water used by an average person, a business or a geographical area. Water footprint puts the consumer, the region or the business in the spotlight, showing the impact of their behaviour on natural resources. In the case of Almeria, our study calculated the virtual water flows from Almeria to the UK for two major crops: tomatoes, as the main horticultural export (produced mainly in greenhouses) and lettuce, as the most valuable export of open-area irrigation (and the main produce of Primaflor, the producer in our case study).

Water stewardship focuses on the negotiation of responsibilities because water issues are so complex that they defy simple measurement and technical solutions. A fundamental part is stakeholder dialogue: involving stakeholders in the development of principles and criteria for water governance. These considerations informed our two-day workshop on water scarcity in Almeria (Ripoll, 2009). The workshops proved to be a useful forum for deliberation in supply chain water governance: they highlighted the need to focus on irrigation systems, to ensure water allocation is linked to availability, to improve policing and surveillance to ensure legality of extraction, and to address the climate change effects of desalination.

As participants pointed out, however, supply-chain responses could by no means replace the role of the public sector in water governance, but could only complement them. Supermarket-supplier deliberation fora cannot address the problem of economic growth. Their survival in current form depends on increasing productivity and increasing consumption – an implausible starting point towards the objective of ‘living within environmental limits’.

Policy-makers could do the following: (i) introduce and maintain efficient irrigation systems (ii) allocate water according to volumes of total local availability (iii) ensure surveillance and policing of water extraction and irrigated land area (iii) limit the use of desalinated water to emergency situations, (iv) reward producers that limit production according to locally available water resources, and (v) ensure that efficiency measures serve to limit water usage rather than increase it.

The EU has considerable leverage in these issues. The 2000 WFD links problems of water quality and scarcity, but the rules remain ambiguous about how water users and agencies will be held accountable for water conservation measures, and the wording includes potential exemptions. The WFD already requires reports on national plans for water basins. Going further, the European Commission could request more evidence about local practices – e.g. whether efficiency measures effectively conserve water usage or instead expand it, and what extra measures are necessary to ensure conservation.

Also contentious are import quotas assigned to third countries (e.g. in north Africa) competing with Almeria food suppliers. Almeria stakeholders agreed that environmental and social standards demanded from European countries should apply to third countries in order to avoid unfair competition. CAP and regional Structural Funds can shape the type of investments made for water infrastructure – either by facilitating greater water use and GHG emissions, or else by aiming for the most environmentally sound types of production.

Beyond all those measures, our analysis reflects on how larger market pressures shape incentives for resource depletion and thus unsustainable development. Free trade, financial liberalisation and deregulation affect the demands that are made on corporate managers (e.g. retail managers). Financial markets aim for short-term returns. Measures towards sustainability can reduce overall business risk in the medium or long term, but such measures are readily subordinated to short-term profit for shareholders. There is a need to reflect critically on the dominant model of consumption growth.