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Two Pacprona agents point to an area where they discovered an illegal well, which has now been sealed. Ramón L. Pérez
300 illegal wells detected in Granada province in five-year period
Drought crisis

300 illegal wells detected in Granada province in five-year period

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More awareness about the drought and anger at neighbours stealing water has triggered calls, as did the case of little Julen who tragically lost his life after falling into a borehole in Malaga province in 2019

Laura Velasco

Monday, 15 April 2024, 18:23

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When they were caught red-handed digging a well in Granada province, the perpetrator answered honestly: "I have planted some olive trees and I wanted to have a well, like everyone else does."

The problem is that the well was one of the many illegal examples that have been reported to Seprona, the nature protection unit of Spain's Guardia Civil, who have detected more than 300 such cases in Granada province since 2019.

This was the year that the tragic story of little Julen caught the attention of the international press. His body was eventually located several days after he fell into a borehole of this type in Malaga province. The events shook the nation and made people more aware of the problem of illegal wells. This tragedy, together with the intensification of the drought currently crippling southern Spain has led to an increase in the number of calls from citizens reporting illegal boreholes.

One of Seprona's functions is to check water resources and possible illegal water abstractions. They receive "daily" reports that they then go to investigate. Sometimes everything is fine and the owner has the required documentation, but that isn't always the case.

Most of the infringements are due to a lack of documentation needed from various bodies to dig a well, or signpost and seal one, to prevent people or animals from falling into them. Seprona has carried out 201 inspections in the last five years, resulting in 338 infractions in the province.

They carry out biannual operations and the periods with the most irregularities detected were 2020 and 2021, with 130. One person was also investigated for constructing a large pool without authorisation. In the 2022-2023 period there were two offences of water fraud: water that was supposed to be for domestic use was being used to irrigate crops.

From 2023 and to date in 2024 the Guadalquivir Hydrographic Confederation has carried out investigations in Granada province with an assessment of damage to the public water domain for an approximate amount of 800,000 euros.

More reports from citizens

"One of the consequences of the drought has been that there have been many more reports from citizens who are either aware or affected, since the drilling of a well affects the aquifer basin and the rest of the neighbours may notice that less water is reaching their crops," says the head of Seprona. In fact, they cannot be within 100 metres of the nearest well or water point, such as a river or stream.

In terms of water distribution, approximately 80 per cent is for crops, 15 per cent for domestic use and the rest for industrial use. The time when water is most scarce, in spring and summer, is when more holes are created.

Criminal offence

The wells are located in any area of the province with mainly irrigated crops and a demand for water. When they are discovered and their owners are reported, it can be a serious offence if the natural environment is affected, but most of the time the penalties are not very high.

For example, if a well is not properly signposted, in principle it would be an administrative, not a criminal offence. If a person falls in, the owner could face civil and criminal liability. In other words, the punishment is very light as long as nothing serious happens. "When Julen fell into the well, that marked a turning point. The population became very aware," said the head of Seprona.

The agents who discovered the person mentioned at the beginning of this article told IDEAL that he had been drilling for about fifty metres. He had no documentation. Four months later, it was sealed. "These explorations are where you least expect them," Seprona added.

Supply at risk

Environmental campaign group Greenpeace has been warning for some years that the theft of water through illegal wells "could jeopardise the future supply for the population". This situation, they warn, affects not only quantity but also quality: "The continuous reduction of water levels and the increasing depth of wells can increase the concentration of salts and reduce the quality of the water, and even contaminate it," Greenpeace warned.

"Illegal and indiscriminate overexploitation of water for irrigation and urban development - especially groundwater - has led to a proliferation of illegal wells and boreholes in recent years," added the organisation.

As well as damaging the population's water supply, these illegal extractions can cause other environmental damage as water is withdrawn without control from an aquifer. "Drying up the land causes cracks and earth movements, such as subsidence," says Antonio Amarillo, coordinator of water with the Andalusian environmental group Ecologistas en Acción.

Plans in problem areas

The Guadalquivir Hydrographic Confederation has various inspection plans under way in problematic areas such as the Baza area of Granada province, where it is investigating the proliferation of irrigated almond and pistachio crops. It has detected some 1,088 hectares of illegally irrigated groves, fifteen wells and twenty illegal pools, which has led to thirty-two fines.

Another of the confederation's plans focuses on the repercussions of illegal abstractions of water in the Sierra Arana, which has led to the identification of 223 hectares of illegally irrigated land, nine wells and five illegal pools. Twelve proceedings to fine perpetrators have been initiated there.

How is a well found to be illegal?

Pacprona, which monitors the city centre and the area around Granada, explains how they find out if a well is illegal. First they request documentation to check that the work being carried out matches what appears on paper. They verify that it has a building permit for drilling and that it has been reported to and authorised by the Confederación Hidrográfica del Guadalquivir (Guadalquivir Hydrographic Confederation).

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