In arid countries worldwide, social conflicts between irrigation-based human development and the conservation of aquatic ecosystems are widespread and attract many public debates.

This research focuses on the analysis of water and agricultural policies aimed at conserving groundwater resources and maintaining rural livelihoods in a basin in Spain’s central arid region. Intensive groundwater mining for irrigation has caused overexploitation of the basin’s large aquifer and the degradation of reputed wetlands, and has given rise to social conflicts.

This study integrates an economic optimization model with SEI’s hydrology model WEAP (Water Evaluation And Planning system) to analyze the spatial and temporal effects of different water and agricultural policies under different climate scenarios.

Results show that the region’s current quota-based water policies may contribute to reduce water consumption in the farms, but will not be able to recover the aquifer and will inflict income losses to the rural communities.

Larger farms with cropping diversification and those equipped with modern irrigation will better adapt to water stress conditions. However, the long-term sustainability of the aquifer and the maintenance of rural livelihoods will be attained only if additional policy measures are put in place such as the control of illegal abstractions and the establishing of a water bank.

This research contributes to the new sustainable development strategy of the EU by showing that, in water-scarce regions, effective integration of water and agricultural policies is essential for achieving water protection objectives. It also provides a valuable illustration of an integrated analytical approach to inform water policy and management decisions within contexts of water-related conflicts worldwide.

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