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More cash and jobs per illegal drop? A tale of equity

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A few years ago, when I was writing my masters thesis on water use (Novo et al., 2009) something that was very often part of the discussions about water management in agriculture was the motto  ‘more crops per drop’.  

More crops per drop means we should aim for efficiency in water use in crop production.  This is often extended to ‘more crops and jobs per drop’ and more recently to ‘more cash and nature per drop’. However, I think discussion of these goals has often overlooked how they interact with equity and governance issues (e.g. who wins and who loses).

During the time of my masters work I was also introduced by a few colleagues to some of the economic and political issues surrounding water use in the upper part of Guadiana River Basin in central Spain (see some of their research here and here). The area they studied is characterized by a complex system of interconnected aquifers and groundwater-dependent ecosystems such as the ‘Tablas de Daimiel’ wetland (not far from where Don Quixote fought against thegiant windmills). Since the 1970s this area has undergone a ‘silent revolution’ of intensive groundwater use, linked to both legal and illegal use of this water (illegal or informal groundwater use refers to any use that violates existing regulations).    

Groundwater use has caused major environmental impacts on the wetland and as a result public policies were introduced to curtail and limit intensive groundwater use in the aquifer. The temporary declaration of overuse in 1989, and its final closure to new uses, was accompanied by the introduction of an annual abstraction limit from 1994, the constitution of groundwater user groups and a ban on drilling new wells or deepening existing ones. However, as you might guess, these paper rules don’t necessary reflect real-world practices. So, what happens if we consider the fact that nearly 50% of the wells in the Western Mancha are unlicensed –what does the coexistence of legal and illegal abstractions mean for efforts to ensure efficiency of water use to support agriculture, economies and nature? Might illegal water groundwater use be as efficient and productive as the legal one? And what does illegal groundwater use mean in terms of equity?

In a study carried out with a few colleagues in Spain we tried to answer some of these questions (a full description of this is available here).  What we found was that the ‘informal groundwater economy’ accounts for more than half of the direct gross revenues and jobs generated by agriculture in the area. Illegal water abstractions are mainly allocated to the most labour intensive and economically productive crops (vine and vegetables), which would explain why public authorities are slightly reticent to implement policies aimed at controlling aquifer overexploitation.  Yet this apparently anarchic situation may be more socially equitable than the initial legal allocation of water rights, which derives mainly from the recognition of groundwater use prior the 1985 Water Act, a time when vine irrigation was prohibited. This ban on vine irrigation was lifted in 1995 yet water rights had been allocated to the landowners based on whether the land had been irrigated just before the cap on new rights was imposed in 1994. Thus, in terms of social welfare, a key factor corroborated during fieldwork was the perception by the local population on the centrality of an equitable allocation of water rights to balance out the historical dominance of large (sometimes absentee) landowners. 

Other results from this study highlight the lack of policy coherence and coordination between agricultural policies (e.g. with incentive programs to encourage vine irrigation) and water policies (e.g. that forbid new water rights and struggling to enforce annual abstraction plans). Although higher economic water productivity encouraged farmers to switch to vine irrigation, this was partly subsidized through indirect EU Common Agricultural policy payments, which might have maintained vine profitability ‘artificially’ and contributed to groundwater overuse. I guess something that my colleagues and I learnt from doing this research is the importance of ‘getting the data right’ and looking at them critically to understand the complexity of water use and the fine border between legal and illegal water uses. 

(Co-authors of paper mentioned above: Aurelien Dumont, Elena Lopez-Gunn, Barbara Willaarts.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.



It strikes me there are parallels between how the water abstraction rights (and volumes I suppose) were set with how the Single Farm Payments under CAP were set. A moment in time is picked as the reference. There is probably no 'right' reference anyway. But this emphasises even more that the results of policy interventions need to be monitored and efforts made to adjust them, taking into account emerging knowledge about quantities of ground/surface water available, changing ownership, land use and management practices.

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Printed from /blog/segs/more_crops_per_drop on 25/02/24 06:45:02 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.