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“There are a million illegal wells in Spain”

Pedro Arrojo is professor emeritus in the Department of Economic Analysis at the University of Zaragoza. He was a representative of Podemos between 2016 and 2019. He now works as a UN special rapporteur on human rights to drinking water and sanitation, from which he warns about the risks of privatizing drinking water. Confronting the “logic of the market and financial speculation”, the rapporteur invites the States to develop “democratic water governance”. And that includes making good use of aquifers.

-Spain is facing a water supply crisis. How did we get to this point?

We are in a drought cycle. It is normal within the Mediterranean climate. But, as the scientific community has been warning for a long time, in relation to climate change, these cycles will become more significant; they will get longer and harder.

–What are the solutions?

-Reservoir is always talked about, but ground water is part of the fresh water iceberg that exists in most parts. Aquatic are nature’s water lungs. This is where the most available and renewable water is. Unfortunately, we are overexploiting many of them in normal years. And precisely in the most sensitive and vulnerable areas. If we continue like this for years, we will end the reservations. They must be kept as a strategic reserve for periods of drought. It is the main instrument in all countries and, in particular, in Spain. Its overexploitation is the key to the problem and, at the same time, the key to possible solutions considering the future. It is estimated that there are more than a million illegal wells [en España]. I have just come from Tunisia, where they are overexploiting their water resources at a known rate of 120% in normal time. They recognize that 60% of the wells in the country are illegal. At least they recognize it. Not here, because it generates shame. The inaction is unjustified and we do not condone or condone it.


–The overexploitation that comes, to a large extent, from illegal exploitation and illegal irrigation, is aggravated by the fact that legal concessions have been granted much higher than the limit for groundwater overexploitation, for example in Doñana. On the other hand, it is the main user of irrigation water. But of course, if we look at plans that anticipate the growth of irrigation, legal and illegal, we are dealing precisely with the problem of overexploitation of resources and the possibility of responding to future droughts, such as the one we suffer from.

-How come these wells are not inspected and the law is acted upon?

-That would have to be asked of the hydrographic federations, which federations have the authority and the duty to monitor these issues. But, unfortunately, there is a feeling that many small and medium-sized farmers also share: that they have the right to use the water under their land. There is little collective awareness of what the law is in this sense. And it is difficult for the political authority to enforce its obligation because of a certain social validity, in case measures to close wells are not popular and, therefore, successful in future elections.

-There have been water problems in Spain for a long time…

-They have a very strong cultural component. Until 1985, the legislation in Spain was national hydro-schizophrenia. It was found that public surface water. The confederations were hydrographic, construction of reservoirs, canals, concessions distributed … But the groundwater was private. The State did not have to be involved. It was a huge contradiction, because the water that was in an aquifer was private and it later appeared in a source and from there it was public. He had no legs or head.

– What happened after 1985?

–By changing the law, the legislator does not dare to consider water retroactively, which becomes the public domain. Therefore, the wells that existed before 1985 are still private. And many people think that the later ones drilled are as legal as the earlier ones. There is no before and after them. Neither the legislator nor the competent authority dare to enforce the new legal principle. Illegal wells continue to be built with the argument that man made it next door, in many cases for irrigation modernization with the support of the corresponding autonomous governments. All the political parties were compliant and there were also legal concessions that make the aquifer overexploited. It is the State’s duty to intervene and review the concessions that are operating, but this is very negative.

– Now that the drought seems to be more aware of the problem in the population, what can we do as citizens?

Being aware is the first step. Through the pressure of citizens, public opinion, the decisions made in the corresponding institutions can be conditioned. We are always told that we can turn off the tap when we brush our teeth, put a bottle inside the cistern so it uses less water… That kind of thing. And they are fine. But they are more an expression of cultural commitment. The amount of water we can save in this way is not even a hundredth of what the city council could save if it were to tackle leaks in the network on a massive and effective basis. Many cities in Spain have leaks of over 20%. Citizens must be able to democratically put pressure on city councils, autonomous communities and the State through hydrographic federations, so that each of them accepts its powers, prudent, serious policies to adapt to climate change and prevent. For example, reducing consumption to sustainable levels, and the prospect of our next drought, sooner or later, which will allow us to have aquifers available. The real solutions go through hydrological planning and the development of territorial and urban planning models, which determine the pace of our water demands.

–That water is listed on Wall Street, does it mean it is a common good or a business?

We have different levels there. A Liberal approach began with the privatization of management, not formal ownership. One example was the incumbent city hall that privatized water management for 40 years in the exercise of its powers. He mostly loses control. What used to be a general welfare service is now being transformed into a business, which some will consider legitimate and others not so much. At a certain point, with the Government of José María Aznar, concession rights deals were approved. Until then, those who had the right to a thousand cubic meter concession to carry out a certain irrigation or industrial production activity could not sell it because it was a free concession granted by the State; it was a privilege and not property. But, since that legal change, the concession rights can be smuggled. It is something that happens in Spain and in certain states of the United States, in Australia or in areas of Chile, which started at the end of the Pinochet dictatorship.

And you question it.

-I have done it as a rapporteur in my first report before the UN General Assembly, in 2021. I ask that this be known and evaluated. In my opinion, we should go back. Water must be treated as a common good that belongs to everyone but cannot be appropriated by anyone.

– How does the water futures market work?

–In Spain, the option of short-term transient purchases was introduced, with a series of more or less demanding limits or regulations, which were liberalized as certain decree laws were approved. So, now, we practically live in a situation where a man who has obtained a public water concession can do business with it and sell it to a third party. And now, suddenly, you can also negotiate a future sale. Futures markets work like this: someone buys water rights six months from now, calculating the possibility of a drought or other conditions. Once that right to the future has been obtained, he puts it on the stock market and speculates on its value, as is happening with food. The casino economy is called. If this remains in a test with California water, as it has been until now, there is no problem.

–A study commissioned by Repsol and carried out by the Complutense University in Madrid says that there will be a lack of water for 40% of the world’s population by 2050. Are the predictions that catastrophic?

–These calculations are, from my point of view, biased. Water is not just good. When they ask me about their value, I answer that there is not one, but several values ​​with ethical ranges of different levels. The value of a cubic meter in a swimming pool cannot be compared to the value of a cubic meter of water that your family needs to live in dignity. There is water that is used for the general good of society, water for the economy and development, and water for crime. Water for life can never be scarce. The minimum amount of water you need for a decent life can be set, but it is barely 3% of what we are putting into rivers and aquifers.

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