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Water use in arid rural systems and the integration of water and agricultural policies in Europe: the case of Andarax river basin


Water is a precious resource in arid rural areas with irrigated agriculture. Nonetheless, water and agricultural policies in Europe show different management scopes and objectives, usually translated in divergent drivers of rural change. This paper has a double aim: to propose a specific method for quantitative biophysical analysis of water use in rural systems with the multi-scale integrated analysis of societal and ecosystem metabolism approach and to show the usefulness of this method for the assessment of the integration of water and agricultural policies. The river basin scale is chosen, since it is the socioecological unit for water management established in the water framework directive 2000/60/CE. A multi-scale water use accounting is provided for a Mediterranean river basin in Andalusia, integrating water cycle, ecosystems and social levels. Particularly focusing on agricultural production, a relevant set of indicators is proposed in order to analyze and compare different metabolic patterns. Finally, the integration of water and agricultural planning is assessed in terms of external (biophysical) and internal (economic, institutional) constraints of the new water-use patterns generated by the scenarios posed in these policies. While on a European level water policy is ambitious in terms of ecological conservation, the lack of integration within the common agricultural policy and the entanglement of multiple scales of political and economic organization of local ruralities blur its priority in a rather slow transition to a new water culture.

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  1. Green and blue water concepts (Falkenmark 1995) were developed to differentiate that part of rain that remains in the soil and feeds plants for Net Primary Productivity from the one that runs directly into surface and ground water bodies. It is blue water the one appropriated directly for human consumption, even though green water use in crops production is even higher.

  2. Direct Payments are lump sums to farmers decoupled from production based on the amount of CAP direct subsidies received by each farmer in the reference period 2000–2002.

  3. Directive 2000/60/EC.

  4. Environmental costs: cost of the required measures for ecosystems status deterioration prevention, mitigation and restoration; Resource costs: opportunity costs for water users when the resource is dwindled over its natural recovery capacity.

  5. Communication from the Commission (COM(2012)673).


  7. Consejería de Agricultura y Pesca. 2009. Report on the impact of the Water Framework Directive and the Common Agricultural Policy on irrigated agriculture in Andalusia.

  8. Almeria is located out of the physical river basin and accounted in the South-West neighbor basin in the RBMP. Only part of its demand is covered with desalted water from the Andarax.

  9. Identity defined as each of the researcher’s perceptions of the investigated system as an entity (or individuality) distinct from its background and from other systems with which it is interacting (Giampietro et al. 2009).

  10. Grammar (Giampietro et al. 2009): set of formal categories (indicators) related to the semantic definitions of what the analyst wants to measure (criteria related to relevant attributes of sustainability).

  11. Minimum water flows required permanently to maintain existent ecosystems in a water body.

  12. Tielborger et al. 2010 make an excellent advance on the concept of Water Productivity, widening it to green water and to the range of different services that water provides. Here we only consider agriculture as provisioning service and the monetary productivity of blue water.

  13. Inventory and characterization of irrigation in Andalusia 2008:

  14. European Declaration for a “New Water Culture”

  15. Water-users communities using surface and groundwater do not pay for it to the water administration. The price reflects the costs they estimate for its extraction and transport. Reclaimed water is bought to the company running the wastewater reclamation plant and an additional ozone treatment is applied.

  16. Payments distribution per sector and region is published by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture here

  17. Inventory and characterization of irrigation in Andalusia 2002. Consejería Agricultura y Pesca.


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The authors are grateful to Joan Corominas and David Sampedro for the useful information provided regarding the management of agriculture units, Javier Martínez for supporting the Energy Intensity calculations, Domingo Baeza for information on environmental flows estimations, Tarik Serrano and Pere Ariza and the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions. This research has been funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (FPU program) and the Agency for Management of University and Research Grants of the Government of Catalonia (Grant No. SGR2009-594).

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Correspondence to Violeta Cabello Villarejo.

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Cabello Villarejo, V., Madrid Lopez, C. Water use in arid rural systems and the integration of water and agricultural policies in Europe: the case of Andarax river basin. Environ Dev Sustain 16, 957–975 (2014).

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  • Societal metabolism of water
  • Water-use sustainability
  • River basin management
  • Water framework directive
  • Policy integration
  • Almeria