Spain is improving its irrigated land’s sustainability

Spanish irrigated agriculture is improving its sustainability: it is growing in acreage while reducing water consumption. In the last decade, Spain has increased its irrigated lands by 400,000 hectares, while maintaining a downward trend in water consumption.

More irrigated area with less water

According to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, in 2018, an irrigated acreage of 3.7 million hectares was reached, almost 400,000 more than ten years earlier. This increase in surface area has gone hand in hand with a decreasing evolution in water consumption.

Between 2008 and 2012, the volume el water used by farmers was close to 16,000 cubic hectometers, while it is now below 15,000 hectometers. In 2002, the agricultural sector represented 80% of the total water consumed in Spain. Currently, this figure has fallen to 65%.

Investments in irrigation modernization, driven by public administrations and farmers, have been crucial in the sector evolution towards greater sustainability.

In the last ten years (Fig. 1), the decline of the most inefficient type, the so-called surface irrigation –with only 50% efficiency- has receded by 174,529 hectares to slightly over 900,000 hectares.

Evolución regadío
Fig. 1. Evolution of irrigation methods

The most sustainable method, drip irrigation –with an efficiency of 90-95%- is the one, which has advanced the most in a decade, with 440,482 hectares more, 16.19% of the total irrigated land. At present, one out of every two irrigated hectares gets the water through this type. Only Israel surpasses Spain at an international level.

Sprinkler and driveline irrigation systems, linked to extensive crops and whose losses barely reaching 15-20%, have also been advancing, with 90,309 and 58,855 hectares respectively in 2018.

The result is that the irrigated lands’ modernization now reaches 75.9% of the acreage, well ahead of neighboring countries. According to the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID), it is 57% in Italy, 51% in France and 10.3% in Portugal.

In the EU there about 10 million hectares of irrigated land. Spain is leading the ranking (29.1% of total acreage), followed by Italy (28.7%), France (14.3%), Greece (11.7%) and Portugal (4.7%).

Environmental challenges

In Spain, irrigated crops are responsible for more than 65% of plant production and one of the pillars of the country’s agri-food system. The Ministry of Agriculture points out that “irrigated agriculture is key to the socioeconomic sustainability of the rural areas, contributing to fix population”. According to Andrés del Campo, Director of Fenacore, the association of irrigators communities, “one hectare of irrigated land produces six times more than a one of rainfed land; farmers’ income is four times higher”.

This progress has been possible thanks to great investments through the years. If the modernization of irrigation has been paramount for Spain to improve its agriculture sectors, its role is even major before the environmental challenges.

“The growth in global demand for food will bring with it a specific demand for water and energy, causing the agri-food complex to exert significant pressure on the environment. The modernization of irrigation constitutes an integral strategic response in the field of water, soil and biodiversity, to achieve a balance between the sustainable intensification of quality food production and the mitigation of climate change effects”, del Campo adds.