A POLICE operation to clampdown on illegal water theft saw the arrest of 133 people and the discovery of more than 1,500 illegal wells.
The shocking data was revealed by Seprona, the environmental unit of Spain’s Guardia Civil on Wednesday following a year-long investigation.
A statement said: “133 people were arrested or investigated for extracting water through more than 1,533 illegal infrastructure devices.”
Those areas that had been most targeted were known trouble spots in Andalucia including the Doñana wetlands in Huelva province which are in extreme environmental danger because of the illegal extraction from its aquifers to provide water for intensive fruit and vegetable farms.
Murcia was also a focus of the investigation, where irrigation practices have caused huge environmental damage to the Mar Menor lagoon.
The basins of the main rivers in Spain are also being targeted, said the force.
Police arrested 14 people and investigated 12 companies in and around Doñana, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, over illegal irrigation practices, a police spokesman said.
Overall 1,512 illegal wells were discovered during the course of Operation Mizu II.
“The overexploitation of certain aquifers for many reasons, mainly economic, constitutes a serious threat to our environment,” the Guardia Civil said.
These wells not only threaten the environment but also pose a danger to wildlife and people especially once they fall into disuse as they are often not fenced off or marked.
This was highlighted with the tragedy of two-year-old Julen Rosello who died in January, 2019, after falling 70metres down a disused shaft.
A report last year by the World Wildlife Fund warned of the alarming rate of looting Spain’s groundwater which is drying up fragile ecosystems of marshlands and lagoons.
The WWF estimated that the water stolen each year is enough to fill 65,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools each year or the equivalent of half the annual water supply to the city of Madrid.
However, prosecution for such crimes remains low with penalties ranging from between six months to two years prison sentence – which is usually suspended for first offenders – as well as fines.
The most serious offenders could be jailed for five years.
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