Spain: Water theft is a growing concern in an increasingly dry country

Strawberry grower Emilia Gomez has experienced a difficult season with barely any water after her farm's illegal well was shut down. Unfortunately, digging an illegal well to irrigate crops is a widespread practice in Spain as water becomes increasingly scarce.

But around 100 such boreholes have been blocked off recently around Lucena del Puerto, a small town some 70 kilometres (45 miles) west of Seville in southern Spain, which has won notoriety for being the epicentre of groundwater theft.

"We've been growing fruit for 40 years and it's always been with water from the well. We've tried to legalise it many times but have always fallen at the last hurdle," says Gomez, 50, who manages the 20-hectare plot with her two sisters.”

Between the pine-covered hills of Lucena where a sea of white plastic greenhouses stretches many hundreds of acres, it's easy to find blocked-off wells and illegal irrigation ponds that just a few months ago were watering fields of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries.

During the summer, the Water Alliance of the Guadalquivir River, whose estuary crosses the Donana marshlands, toughened its stance, shutting down around 120 illegal wells. "We will continue doing so because we mustn't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs," said Alliance president Joaquin Paez, referring to crucial subterranean water resources.

The Guadalquivir basin "is very sensitive to climate change" with this year's water input "40 percent lower than the average for the past 25 years," he said. In times of water scarcity, the subterranean reserves are "the main stores" that will allow farming to continue in an area where the sector employs some 80,000 people.

Huelva province produces 90 percent of red fruit crops in Spain, which is the world's top strawberry exporter. In 2015, Lucena del Puerto produced around 43 tonnes of fruit with a market value of some 500 million euros ($540 million), says mayor Manuel Mora.

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