Spain: Segura River returned to its health (#478)

The Segura Basin in Spain is the driest in Europe. With 365 mm of annual rainfall, this basin has the lowest rainfall in the European Union. Nevertheless, it is also a region which exports fruit and vegetables. The Segura River is thus the main water sources for irrigation. In 1986, when Spain became a member of the European Union, the production of agriculture and canned food significantly increased. As a consequence, a rise in wastewater discharges and lack of water in the already water-stressed Segura River brought extreme deterioration of the water-related ecosystem and a strong social discontent.

Actions taken

The Segura River Project was developed by the Murcia Government’s Regional Water Department, in partnership with the Segura River Authority and town councils in the region, to restore the health of the Segura River and to supply reclaimed water to the booming agriculture industry. A long vision plan was to restore the river and supply reclaimed water to agriculture. This complex plan was developed by the Regional Water Department, with the participation of the Segura River Authority, town councils and European Union funds.

Between 2001 and 2010, 100 water treatment plants and 350 km of wastewater collection systems were built. In addition, a wastewater reclamation levy was established to finance the operation, maintenance and monitoring of these systems, applying the principle of “the polluter pays”.

The Segura River Project plan was carried out by many stakeholders (Murcia Regional Government, Segura River Basin Authority and town councils), owing to shared responsibilities between administrations in the Spanish water policy. The size of the project, its complexity and the budget requested meant this partnership was essential for the successful implementation.

Outcomes and Lessons Learnt

A major breakthrough was achieved in 2003 when the quality of the Segura’s water started improving. Since 2010, pollution has been unnoticeable, leading to the recovery of fauna and flora including increased otter population in parts of the river they had once abandoned. Birds now rest at two recovered wetland areas recognised by the Ramsar Convention, during their migration between Europe and Africa. In addition, around 110 million m3 of reclaimed water is reused annually for agriculture in the region.

The Segura River Project has successfully restored the health of the river, with advanced wastewater schemes now supplying reclaimed water to the agriculture industry which rapidly boomed after Spain became a member of the European Union.

This once polluted and water-stressed river in Europe’s driest basin has been transformed from an exposed sewer to a healthy, vibrant river, home to otter, migratory birds, and other flora and fauna, and the reuse of irrigation water has allowed increased agricultural, leisure and recreational activities. During the worst years of water pollution, public opinion demanded a solution that the Government had not offered until that moment. But as the positive outcomes could be seen, the people started to join in activities and associations to enjoy the recovered ecosystem and to protect it. The involvement of riverside neighbors and farmers was also key to guarantee the upkeep of the improvements.

The Segura River management is a great example of an integrated approach with environmental, social and economic restoration activities. The established management framework includes a solid science foundation and shared governance, while the catchment management planning process was ahead of the European legislation requirement.