"Spanish irrigation, a benchmark of a sustainable and modern model".

Isabel BombalDirector General for Rural Development, Innovation and Agri-Food Training


The future of the agri-food sector in our country depends on modern and sustainable irrigation. The irrigation is undoubtedly the ?jewel in the crown? of Spanish agriculture, as it is at the forefront in innovation, sustainability, digitalisation and the use of non-conventional waters, as well as for its capacity to generate added value and employment. But, above all, it is essential for supplying citizens with healthy, safe and quality food at reasonable prices.   

So far in the 21st century, the amount of Spanish agricultural production has increased by 36 % thanks, in particular, to the boost given to irrigation, which in Spain accounts for around 23 % of the cultivated area, with 3.8 million hectares, and generates two thirds of the value of vegetable production. It also manages to increase agricultural productivity sixfold, increase farmers' incomes by up to four times and triple employment rates in the sector. 

This already established potential becomes even more relevant in the current situation, where issues such as depopulation and, above all, climate change, will mark the future of the coming years. Rainfall is becoming increasingly erratic and even scarce, which will lead to a reduction of between 12 and 40 percent of available water resources by the end of the century.

This scenario makes it necessary to act and modernise water management in agriculture in order to achieve adequate and efficient use in the face of the unquestionable lack of availability in the near future.

To this end, the reuse and treatment of water, the use of renewable energies, the digitalisation and irrigation technology are the best instruments to address the situation. Spain is an international leader in the development of these issues and even exports some of its working structures. 

In a context of a global food security crisis that is partly due to climate change, efficient and sustainable irrigation is the major guarantor of food production.

Moreover, in the specific case of Spain, with more than half of the irrigated area being localised, irrigation plays an essential role in the fight against depopulation. Therefore, the promotion of sustainable irrigation is in line with the European policies framed in the Green Pact and on the strategies that most affect agriculture, such as ?From farm to table? y ?Biodiversity?. In order to achieve these objectives, it is necessary to promote a series of investments, which our country is already carrying out. 

The road to sustainable irrigation

Irrigation must be sustainable from three points of view: economic, social and environmental. In this context, from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food we are committed to sustainable irrigation to guarantee the efficient use of water, energy and other inputs (fertilisers, phytosanitary products, etc.), thus minimising the impact on natural resources. 

To this end, the Government has planned an investment of 2,130 million euros for the period 2021-2027; this is the largest economic volume of the current century, which will be allocated to sustainable irrigation actions, tripling the average annual volume of investment in recent years. Included in this disbursement is the ?Plan for the improvement of efficiency and sustainability in irrigation?This has been allocated more than half of the budget of the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan (PRTR) managed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (component no. 3). This is 563 million euros of public investment that will be supplemented by contributions from the irrigation communities to exceed 700 million euros, a figure that will be used to implement more than 80 actions. It is also planned to increase this volume of investment with additional funds from the recovery plan linked to the PERTE Agroalimentario.  

In the execution of irrigation works, the General State Administration is limited to areas declared to be of general interest by national regulations. For these funds earmarked for ?Plan for the improvement of efficiency and sustainability in irrigation.? in the framework of the PRTRThe infrastructures have been selected from among those presented by the Autonomous Communities. The actions proposed by the latter have been classified into different groups, according to the predominant type of modernisation: use of non-conventional water (regenerated or desalinated instead of surface or groundwater), substitution of fossil energy sources by renewable energies (especially photovoltaic), use of pumping by natural level or level ponds to achieve energy and water efficiency, commitment to new technologies and digitalisation, modernisation with renewable energies through electrical components and traditional modernisation. 

In addition, this ministry will carry out investments co-financed by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) and programmed in the framework of the new Common Agricultural Policy 2023-2027, contributing to the specific objective of the CAP Strategic Plan (CSAP) of ?promote sustainable development and the efficient management of natural resources such as water, soil and air?. Within the framework of this CAP strategic plan, the ministry is expected to implement additional irrigation modernisation infrastructures.  

With regard to the type of investments, it should be noted that we are also executing the ordinary investments in irrigation transformation financed by the ministry within the General State Budget, which amount to 419 million euros, as well as those entrusted to the Sociedad Estatal de Infraestructuras Agrarias (SEIASA), which amount to almost 500 million euros, within the classic agreement that the ministry has with this state trading company and which go beyond the funds linked to the recovery, transformation and resilience plan.  

Thanks to all these funds, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food intends to modernise more than 200,000 hectares of irrigated land, as a first modernisation, and to act on another 500,000 hectares already modernised in the past, but requiring improvements, applying the latest and most modern technologies (second and third modernisations). These actions will guarantee water savings of at least 10 % compared to the current situation, with a more efficient use of energy. All this endorses the political and economic commitment of the Spanish Government to achieve the main purpose of the programme: a sustainable irrigation system. 

Other innovation and development actions for the agri-food sector

However, the actions of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the field of irrigation cover more areas. One of the most important of these is support for entrepreneurship and the development of new business models within the agri-food sector and the rural environment, as many of its companies act as a catalyst in the field of irrigation thanks to their knowledge and experience.  

It is also worth highlighting the strength of the agrotech sector and of Spanish SMEs and startups, as many of them are dedicated not only to providing solutions to the challenges facing irrigation in our country, but also to generating added value and economic activity in their own right. In fact, the ministry continues to work on the Agroinnpulso line to favour access to credit for agri-food SMEs in the promotion and consolidation of their technology-based business models. In this respect, the recently approved Startups Act offers advantages and opportunities for these emerging companies, as it takes into account the differentiated reality of the rural environment. 

On the other hand, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is going to launch over the next few months a Digital Innovation Hub. This is a digital innovation centre dedicated to the agri-food sector, located in San Fernando de Henares (Madrid), whose activity will initially address issues related to irrigation technology and water efficiency. In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is immersed in the development of agri-food sector data spaces, in collaboration with the Secretary of State for Digitalisation and Artificial Intelligence of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation. Its implementation will make it possible to securely share relevant information for farmers and irrigators throughout Spain, make innovative decisions based on Big Data and, at the same time, expand the scope of application of the SIEX system and the agro-climatic information system for irrigators (SiAR). 

In order to achieve these objectives, training and skills acquisition in this area is essential. Accordingly, the ministry has developed several initiatives in the field of learning, counselling and skills acquisition. One of these measures is the Centre for Digital Competences, whose activity started in 2021 with the collaboration of the University of Cordoba and the Polytechnic University of Madrid. Its task is to provide access to specialised training through free courses related to the digital transformation of the agri-food sector. Since the beginning of this initiative, 40 places have been offered each year in a course dedicated precisely to precision irrigation and efficient water management. Some of its topics are extremely relevant, such as the handling of climate data and the calculation of needs, the application of artificial intelligence for the prediction of water demand and irrigation management, the use of environmental and crop sensors or the technology of pressurised irrigation units for uniform applications. 

At the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food we work with the conviction that modern irrigation contributes to a better future.

Sustainable irrigation is the basis for the future of agricultural production in our country, through efficient and precision systems that save water and incorporate alternative energies.  

In this scenario, the Spanish Government will continue to be committed to more efficient, digital and innovative irrigation systems that incorporate the best available techniques and technologies, that allow them to adapt to climate change, that contribute to reducing the consumption of inputs in these production systems, and that help to fix the population and generate wealth in rural areas.   

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