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Agriculture in Spain: water as a key player

  • Agriculture in Spain: water as key player

Even though it is an important part of the GDP in Spain, irrigation agriculture is largely unknown to the general public. Many ideas in our collective thinking are based on obsolete principles, left behind long ago. Moreover: nowadays, the average Spanish farmer uses more digital tools than many millennials do.

To this arsenal of technology we have to add that Spain is a leader in water management, due to an essential limitation: water resource scarcity. Therefore, efficient water management and the digitalization of agriculture results in a sustainable agricultural system, at least in theory.

We brought together five experts from different areas of the agricultural sector to analyse the current situation and future challenges related to water resources in the Spanish agricultural landscape

However, in this (apparently) peaceful scenario there are some factors that require special attention. The costs of water and energy, the application of national and European legislation, population decline in rural areas and the role of communications are elements that require a comprehensive analysis by all sector stakeholders.

Therefore, Roca Madrid Gallery was once again the scene of an intense debate where María Fernández, Assistant Director General for Irrigation and Rural Infrastructure, Spanish Ministry of Agricultural, Fisheries and Food (MAPA); Juan Valero de Palma, General Secretary of the National Federation of Irrigation Associations of Spain (Fenacore); Mariano Soto, General Secretary, Campo de Cartagena Irrigation Association; Juan Luis Castillo, Director, Zone II, Aqualia; and Rafael González, Post-doctoral researcher at the University of Castile-La Mancha and AgroBank Chair Award, analysed the challenges in our irrigation sector and its future.

The irrigation we have vs. the one we imagine

'We can be proud of the irrigation we have in Spain', Juan Valero began. 'After Israel, we are the country with most land area under modern irrigation. With 3.5 million hectares, 55% of them use micro-irrigation systems', he described. 'Unfortunately, public opinion seems to think that irrigation wastes water. That is not what happens', observed the General Secretary of Fenacore.

Mariano Soto corroborated that with an example: 'In Murcia, more than 84% of the irrigated land uses micro-irrigation systems, and in Campo de Cartagena, this per cent goes up to 96%. We receive visitors all the time, both international and national visitors, to learn in situ about our technology. This is in contrast with the image of a total lack of control over water use and a farmer that does what he wants, which is completely false'. He finds it 'odd that we have a technology everyone admires, and some sectors of public opinion continue to criticise us'.

Given the good image within the sector, should we, then, modernise all irrigated land? 'There is still 20% of the irrigated land using flood irrigation: there are rice fields that cannot be modernised. And traditional irrigated areas around cities, where it would be very difficult', explained Juan Valero. 'I would not modernise 100% of the irrigated land', noted Mariano Soto. 'There are areas where traditional irrigation has historical and landscape significance.  In that case modernising it makes no sense: we have to protect unique areas'.

Technification and digitalisation, to blame

Spain is a leader in irrigation, and modernisation is the reason for it. Rafael González confirmed it: 'If we compare 2009-2010 to today, irrigation associations are managed completely differently. There have been important changes in these years. Modernisation brought pressure irrigation, new systems, more intensive crops and greater productivity, and irrigation flexibility. Mariano Soto went back even further: 'In 1997, the Mula Irrigation Association already had an automated system that was unique in the world. In 2000 we were already using remote control systems and geographic information systems in a portion of our irrigated land'. Now, thankfully, 'there are examples of this everywhere in Spain'. Rafael González noted that until 2010, there were some bad experiences. That meant going back a couple of years, because people did not trust the technology, and some associations were against it'.

Campo de Cartagena is a case in point, explained Mariano Soto: 'From 1996 to 2000 we introduced automated systems in 5,000 hectares of irrigated land. Few of us were using these technologies at the time. In 2006, we introduced automated systems in 24,000 hectares in only two years. It was a new technology; nowadays controlling the irrigation network remotely is a widespread practice. And he continued describing the current situation: 'In terms of engineering, we can achieve almost 100% efficiency. Many irrigation associations have water distribution efficiencies of up to 96-97%. Where there is margin for improvement, thanks to the application of ICTs, is in management. We can achieve water savings of about 15 -20%. And at the level of the land parcel there has been a revolution thanks to monitoring that makes use of sensors, data processing and information analysis'.

The desert is growing, and without irrigated land, the south-east of Spain would be a desert. Irrigation stops desertification - Juan Valero​

Companies play an important role, noted Juan Luis Castillo: 'the applications we develop for irrigation farmers take into account evapotranspiration, air moisture, crop growth, etc.; we are witnessing a technological revolution. We also work to enable fertigation'. He also thinks that 'historically irrigation farmers were reticent to adopt new technologies, but once they tried them and saw they worked, they were open to work with specialised companies'.

For María Fernandez, 'society mistakenly thinks that modernisation is just putting a pipe in a ditch. And that is not the only thing. There is remote sensing information, remote control systems, etc. In fact, at the MAPA we are defining a regulation to normalise remote control systems to ensure system interoperability, and the level of use of technology is impressive'. She noted, however, that 'it seems as though the authorities had invented the wheel with digitalisation, but it is a cross-cutting trend that has been ongoing for 20-30 years'. Juan Luis Castillo believes 'we are now in a second phase. In very little time we went from 0 to 100, and we still have a long way to go'.

Juan Valero summed it up: 'The picture of irrigation in Spain includes micro-irrigation systems, hydroponic crops, farmers managing irrigation and making requests with their mobile phone through the web page, changing shifts, adjusting the system when it rains, etc. There are few countries with such modern irrigation in a large portion of their land area.

María Fernández. Assistant Director General for Irrigation and Rural Infrastructure, Spanish Ministry of Agricultural, Fisheries and Food (MAPA)

The way forward: collaboration

'Modern irrigation farmers, interested in new technologies, choose crops that are well received in the market', indicated María Fernandez. Any type of farming operation is quite impressive in terms of deciding on the crops to be grown, water management, energy management, etc.'. Moreover, as Juan Luis Castillo noted, 'companies like mine work with irrigation farmers to search for innovative crops, and even assume risks on their part'. 'We contribute our ability to make systems more efficient and sustainable, and it has been difficult to make farmers understand this'. 'In the end, the company has a very important role', confirmed Mariano Soto. To this we may add 'the collaboration with the national and regional authorities, and with universities and research centres'.

'The system is so complex that, without the cooperation of all stakeholders the initiatives cannot come to fruition', believes María Fernandez. 'There are so many variables involved that a single actor cannot possible tackle everything. When we talk about irrigation we have to embrace the fact that it is a cutting edge activity where many disciplines and stakeholders are involved'. 'I agree' affirmed Juan Valero. He added that 'the national government has been involved in the transformation that has taken place in those 2 million hectares over the past 20-25 years, through the  agricultural infrastructure public company SEIASA, which is one of many instruments. There is no ideal solution. Irrigation farms are different across Spain, so it is important to have the involvement of all authorities and public companies. I am concerned that some views advocate a single modernisation model', he said.

María Fernández stepped back: 'We are focusing on modernisation, which is the way forward, but collaboration has been present from the beginning in irrigation. Otherwise, we would have not been able to get to the level we are at now'.

A lot more can be improved through good irrigation design that with corrective or management solutions once irrigation has been implemented - Juan Luis Castillo

What are we doing wrong?

What is the true importance of irrigation? According to María Fernández, 'it is essential. It accounts for 65% of the final plant production'. She suggested that 'irrigation is linked to the activity of the primary sector: we have not communicated about it appropriately to the general public. There are many fora within the sector, but that is not the case when it comes to reaching out beyond it. Maybe because it is something so specific that it is difficult to talk about it in headlines'.

Not everyone agrees. Rafael González believes that 'we are not making enough efforts to reach out to the rest of society. There is an important gap between the farmer and the rest of society, because there is no link between them'. Juan Valero concurs: 'We are partly to blame. We have to be more self-critical, because we made the effort to realise the change, but we have not sold it'. He considers that 'the presidents of the associations, the secretaries, technicians, and governing boards have sold modernisation to farmers. We have to allocate part of our budget to communication campaigns'. 'The authorities should do that too', noted María Fernández. 'The authorities have not made an effort to communicate, at least not concerning agriculture. We are trying to prepare a communications plan on irrigation, but project managers do not think this is important. With a good communications policy, you have social support and you benefit the entire sector'. 'You are right', agreed Juan Luis Castillo, 'we have to change the chip and be proactive, because it is not easy for society to get the message'. This is essential because 'we live in an urban world, and what happens in rural areas is out of people's minds. On the contrary, people are concerned thinking that irrigation is having an impact on the environment'. 'Just because there are more people shouting a certain idea, it does not mean they are right', went on Rafael González. 'But they reach out further', noted Mariano Soto.

Juan Valero de Palma. General Secretary, Fenacore

The reasons to keep irrigation in Spain

This requirement to communicate conceals a need to maintain irrigation. The reasons are plenty: 'In an overpopulated planet, feeding everyone will be a problem. Thousands of people will find it difficult to access produce', said Juan Luis Castillo. In Spain, he went on, 'we have a competitive disadvantage. We have to try to maintain the primary sector, and irrigation is the way to do it'. 'Food is essential', noted María Fernandez, 'but, what about land use planning? We cannot forget than depopulation is at the core of these issues. If we compare areas with and without irrigation, the provinces with a more pronounced population decline are those with less investment in irrigation. There is a correlation'. 'We have to maintain the social and economic structure in rural areas, and irrigation ensures a rural economy that allows young people to stay in those areas', stated Juan Luis Castillo.

Productivity is something else to consider: 'The yield of a hectare of irrigated land is on average six times greater than the yield of a hectare of rainfed agricultural land', pointed out Juan Valero. 'Land is a limited resource. The land used for agricultural purposes should be as profitable and productive as possible, and irrigation ensures that'. To that we add the economic aspect: 'The agri-food industry is the primary industry in Spain, and it is based on irrigation', said the General Secretary of Fenacore. 'We are talking about 20% of the GDP. Rainfed agriculture is oriented to single crops. Irrigation involves a diversity of crops, so the production can be adapted to market needs quite fast'.

Of course, the environment also comes into the equation: 'Irrigated land is a CO2 sink', reported Mariano Soto. In regard to desertification in our country, Juan Valero sustained that 'the desert is growing, and without irrigated land, the south-east of Spain would be a desert. Irrigation stops desertification'.

There are areas where traditional irrigation has historical and landscape significance; in that case modernising it makes no sense - Mariano Soto

Rules and regulations: Are they enough?

Concerning the current applicable legislation, María Fernández thinks 'it is more than enough. But we have to enforce it properly'. 'And have the means to implement it', replied Juan Valero. 'The problem is there are thousands of irrigation associations with less than 500 hectares and no staff. We work to have appropriate legislation which associations can comply with, but many of them do not have the human and material resources to do so. We are very much in need of a legal amendment to the 2007 Regulation on water reuse, establishing that the user of reclaimed water must assume the costs of reused water quality. This cannot be the sole solution, because there can be many different solutions'.

At the European level, Mariano Soto conveyed farmers' concerns about the new regulation on water reuse: '(The law) may be so restrictive that it cannot be complied with. The most important thing for us is guaranteeing the safety of our crops'. And this is even though 'we are returning treated water with higher quality than the quality of the receiving water body', confirmed Juan Luis Castillo.

In Spain, this new regulation will mean 'more strict quality requirements, to a degree that it will be extremely difficult to comply with them. With these requirements for reused water, the question is: why for surface water and not for groundwater?', asked Juan Valero. Health is an absolute priority, but we need realistic regulations so we do not end up with instances of non-compliance, when everything depends on the product irrigated'.

Mariano Soto went even further: 'It is good to control the water used in irrigation, but it is not the only thing. We ensure control of the final product, which must abide by health requirements, as it is done currently'.

Mariano Soto. General Secretary, Campo de Cartagena Irrigation Association

About the water-energy nexus

A key point is that talking about irrigation means talking about energy. With regard to energy use, 'the most important factor is the source of the water', said Mariano Soto. And gives an example: 'the specific energy consumption when using surface water is practically zero, except for some pumping. For desalinated water at the irrigated land parcel, it is about 3-4 kWh per m3; for water from the Tajo-Segura interbasin transfer, 1-1.2; for reused water that has undergone tertiary treatment, 0.50-0.70; for micro-irrigation, 0.20. I support desalination, but we have to consider these data: how can we do away with the Tajo-Segura interbasin transfer and sustain 100% of the irrigation with desalination? That would entail a four fold increase in energy consumption'. And he reflected: 'Irrigation associations have made a great effort to reduce energy consumption. The increase in the price of the fixed charges of electricity has had a detrimental impact'. He explained further: 'Many regions of Spain use irrigation from May through to August, but the rest of the year they continue to pay a huge amount of money because of the increase in fixed charges'. 'Some areas have not been irrigated, not because there is no water, but because farmers cannot afford the energy to apply the water', pointed out Rafael González. 'Do you remember when the specific tariffs were regulated back in 2008?', recalled Juan Luis Castillo.

Right now, according to Juan Valero, 'irrigation consumes 2% of the energy used in Spain. Even though water use has been reduced. In this situation, and with the elimination of the special tariff for irrigation, things are complicated. Any decision to modernise has to take into account the energy variable'. There are some success stories worth noting: 'The Aragón and Cataluña Canal uses irrigation ponds along its sides for gravity-driven modern irrigation systems, with very low energy consumption. This is possible because irrigated land is at a lower level. It is a model to follow wherever possible, if the topography allows it'.

In addition, 'irrigation is one of the few energy demands in the market that can adapt to market prices' added Juan Valero. 'You can irrigate at 8 p.m. or at night. We have to match the irrigation water demand to the market price for energy'. And request from authorities 'the application of a reduced VAT on energy used for irrigation. The VAT European Directive allows it. It is already done in Italy. The decision has to be made by the Ministry of Revenue'. 'At the MAPA, we can work along others', affirms María Fernández.

'The issue of seasonal contracts is something else. The law has been changed; the Cabinet can approve a Royal Decree establishing that there can be two seasonal contracts in the irrigation sector. We only need political will by the government', maintains Juan Valero.

Rafael González. Post-doctoral researcher at the University of Castile-La Mancha. AgroBank Chair Award

Renewable energies and research: alternatives

Another way to address energy issues is using solar energy. 'There are already wells that work exclusively with solar energy, and associations that work with thermosolar plants', said Juan Valero. 'The Valle Inferior Irrigation Association has a 6 megawatt project using photovoltaic solar energy' commented Rafael González. 'The technical aspects have been sorted out; however, there are legal aspects that hinder the use of solar energy, even though in Spain the photovoltaic production reaches a maximum at the same time as crop needs are highest'.

According to the researcher, 'irrigation association management tends toward farmer flexibility. If we do not want to do away with that flexibility, we have to anticipate things. That means controlling the factors involved 1 or 2 days before deciding to irrigate'. Regarding renewable energy: 'There is a legislative bottleneck. Research has moved forward, but it cannot be applied'.

Companies are not far behind, as Juan Luis Castillo explained: 'We have many technical solutions that we are currently applying'. He thinks that 'a lot more can be improved through good irrigation design that with corrective or management solutions once irrigation has been implemented'. Mariano Soto ratified his words: 'Design is important, and handling too'. He added to that 'indicators, that is, monitoring. If there is a problem with a pump, you can see it immediately. Installing a pressure sensor or a flow meter is affordable'. But we have to 'see what is done with those measurements. We have to go one step further if we want to achieve efficiency', noted Rafael González. María Fernández added to that a 'further modernisation concerning energy efficiency, which would take place in irrigation associations with already modern systems'.

The caveat is that 'some associations cannot afford it, and this is where where companies can design, implement and finance investments in modernisation', explained Juan Luis Castillo. 'Companies like mine are there to help those that need it and demand it. We can offer efficiency and sustainability; we can contribute to advancing efficiency through our financial capacity to invest on behalf of irrigation farmers, and help them recover the investment with tariffs’.

What about water?

The debate was coming to an end, and water took on a greater role. To start with, it was made clear that 'according to 2016 statistical data, 75% of irrigation water comes from surface water sources, 23% from groundwater sources, and 2% from other sources', noted Mariano Soto. 'Water is part of a hydrological cycle, where there are no isolated compartments. Water from all sources is used as one resource, and that is the appropriate way to manage it', sustained Juan Valero. 'There is virtuality even in the transfer of resources for a single irrigated area. Regardless of the water source, probably the real source is a different one', continued Juan Luis Castillo. 'In our case', commented Mariano Soto, 'we use 5 different resources: water from the Segura River, from the interbasin transfer, from the desalination plants in Torrevieja and Escombreras, reused water, and water from private wells, in 42,000 hectares'.

Juan Valero sees an advantage in this case, and also a disadvantage: 'It is only an administrative concession. The problem with irrigation in Spain is that irrigation associations are quite small. We need irrigation to be organised into larger entities, because that allows proper management'.

And back to the water: a number to keep in mind is that 'from 2002 to 2016, water use for irrigation has been reduced by 14%. At the land parcel, we are talking about savings of 20%', stated Mariano Soto. According to Juan Valero, at the national level, 'water consumption amounts to 60 to 80% of the total. It is not always the same: in years with abundant water and no problems regarding transfers nor irrigation, it goes up to 80%. When water is scarce, ours is the first use that experiences restrictions, because the drinking water supply is a priority. In cases of severe drought, we consume nearly 60-63% of the resources. Often irrigation farmers encounter difficulties to access the resource. When water is scarce, irrigation is a flexible use'. And let us not forget 'a basic idea: if we want to feed the population, we have to do it with fruits and vegetables, because they use much less water than livestock raising'.

Juan Luis Castillo. Director, Zone II, Aqualia

Finally: How much does it cost?

We reached the end of the debate to talk about the elephant in the room: costs. 'There is a prevailing idea that irrigation is subsidised, that costs are not recovered, than irrigation water is not paid for, etc.; the truth is that the per cent of cost recovery is above 70%', affirmed Juan Valero. 'Concerning irrigation in Europe, our country is the one that complies with the Water Framework Directive to a greater extent; however, it is said that the costs of water are not recovered. This is false'.

'Sometimes', chimed in María Fernández, 'it seems that the authorities, using public funds, are investing in irrigation for a few privileged ones. And 100% the costs of any actions are borne by irrigation farmers, whether a public authority or a public company is in charge of it. That is where companies come in. So said Juan Luis Castillo. 'At the Segarra-Garrigues we had to consolidate a strong group of companies to manage funds worth over 1 billion euros to transform some 70,000 gross hectares into irrigated land. That can hardly be done without the collaboration of the private sector, who can finance and design the future efficiency of the operations'.

Mariano Soto pointed to something else: 'There are big disparities in water prices'. His metaphor is quite clear: 'What would happen if the price of diesel was 50 cents in Murcia, and 4 euros in Madrid? People from Madrid would take to the streets. That does not happen with water. We have the most modern technology, but, if we don't have water, is it worth the effort? And more so when you depend on the market. The region of Murcia by itself exports more than 4 billion euros. Competition is an issue when some irrigation farmers pay up to three fold the price for water that their neighbours pay’. 'What do farmers with the highest water prices do? Very intensive cropping', said Juan Luis Castillo. 'Having the same water price everywhere would not result in a homogeneous situation', observed María Fernandez. 'And there are areas where it cannot be. You would harm irrigation farming in the regions of Spain with a declining population', agreed Mariano Soto. Juan Valero defended 'maintaining a system with an economic-financial regime. If we try to have the same water price everywhere, we would end up with a political price. That is a dangerous path'. At the end, 'the future of agriculture in Spain will be irrigation, or it will cease to exist', he maintained.

None of us make an effort to reach out to the rest of society; there is an important gap between the farmer and the rest of society - Rafael González

What is the future of irrigation in Spain?

María Fernández. Assistant Director General for Irrigation and Rural Infrastructure, Spanish Ministry of Agricultural, Fisheries and Food (MAPA)

  • The future of irrigation needs a global approach which includes all related issues: innovation, training, communications, etc.

Juan Valero de Palma. General Secretary, Fenacore

  • We have to complete the modernisation of irrigation agriculture in Spain to continue to be a world leading country in this area.

Mariano Soto. General Secretary, Campo de Cartagena Irrigation Association

  • Irrigation is a strategic sector and must continue to be: the key is the technological revolution in water management.

Juan Luis Castillo. Director, Zone II, Aqualia

  • We have to promote and encourage irrigation agriculture, and do it with maximum efficiency and sustainability.

Rafael González. Posdoctoral researcher at the University of Cordoba and AgroBank Chair Award

  • I don't understand the future of agriculture unless it is irrigation agriculture, and I also think it will have to use artificial intelligence.

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