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Seprona agents inspect a well in Operation Mizu Sur
Police investigate 114 people in Axarquía in crackdown on illegal irrigation

Police investigate 114 people in Axarquía in crackdown on illegal irrigation

The Guardia Civil has already arrested some 30 farmers and business owners in connection with water used for subtropical crops

Juan Cano

Malaga

Monday, 8 May 2023, 14:03

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Police are cracking down on illegal wells and water-looting in Malaga as levels in reservoirs remain dangerously low due to the ongoing drought crisis.

Guardia Civil's nature protection service (Seprona) has launched an operation against illegal water use, targeting a series of subtropical plantations in the Axarquía district in the east of Malaga province.

The original complaint filed by the Environmental Prosecutor's Office in September last year identified 114 people who are currently under police investigation by Seprona. They are farmers, business owners or members of irrigation communities (groups of crop growers).

Initially, about 30 of them have been arrested and questioned in the last few days. They were then released and warned they would be summoned to make a statement in the Vélez-Málaga court that is leading the investigation.

Sources from the High Court of Justice of Andalusia (TSJA) and the Environmental Prosecutor's Office confirmed to SUR that the specific offences being investigated in the operation are crimes against natural resources and the environment, and the illegal "diversion" of water.

Illegal wells

The extraction of more than one million cubic metres of water from an underground water system (called Metapelitas de Sierra Tejeda-Almijara) was detected through three illegal wells that have been operating for years and have been used to irrigate subtropical plantations, mainly avocado trees, according to police.

This underground water had been "over-exploited" said the police and its state of conservation has been described as "poor".

Officers calculated that the damage, in financial terms, caused by these three wells alone amounted to 343,644 euros.

Another offence under investigation by Seprona concerns water managed by several irrigation communities, which administer water to a number of authorised plots.

According to police reports, this water has also been used on more than 220 hectares of unauthorised land in the past five years, which would have caused damage to the public water reserves to a value of one and a half million euros. That figure corresponded to just one of the three communities under investigation.

Seprona provided an even more alarming figure; the total number of illegal wells and pools located in that irrigation community amounts to nine, of which seven (77% of the total) are illegal, which shows the "manifest disregard for compliance with environmental regulations and in full knowledge of the serious water situation in the area", according to one of the reports.

Drought crisis

The crackdown on illegal water wells and practices comes as the drought crisis across Spain worsens. According to Aemet, it has rained 22% less than usual in Spain.

The country's water reserve is beginning to suffer seriously and is already at 51% of its capacity, 15 points below the average for the last decade. The situation is particularly grim south of the peninsula, where reservoirs in the Guadalquivir basin only store a quarter of their capacity; 25.6%.

The situation is also critical in La Axarquía, with the La Viñuela reservoir at 9.7% of its capacity, already close to the historic low reached in October in 2008, when it was left with only 15 cubic hectometres. It currently stores 16 hectometres, when its capacity is 165.

A third of the illegal wells located by the Seprona are in Malaga

After the death of little Julen on 13 January 2019 in Totalán, when the two-year-old fell into an unsealed borehole 22 centimetres in diameter, the Guardia Civil began an operation to locate illegal infrastructures used to extract water. Four years later, officers from the Nature Protection Service (Seprona) reported 3,000 irregular wells, boreholes and pools in the two phases of what was named 'operation Mizu'. Half of the infrastructure offences reported by Seprona were discovered in Andalucía, and almost a third in Malaga, where 432 illegal water catchments were located in 2021 alone, during the second phase of 'Mizu', as SUR reported last January.

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