event 08 Apr 2020

Case study // Solving water problems or creating a new one?

This article was originally published by MAGIC Nexus (magic-nexus.eu) and has been re-published here with ther friendly permission. It gives on overview over a case study in the Canary islands, which aims to examine the technological, environmental and social challenges and keystones regarding the use of AWS (desalination and reclaimed water) for irrigation in two areas of the islands of Gran Canaria and Tenerife.

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The growing gap between water availability and water demand—due to increasing human pressures and climate change—has prompted the exploitation of non-conventional water resources for covering high irrigation demands in many Southern European regions. Indeed, desalination and wastewater reuse are increasingly put forward as sustainable local solutions to water scarcity. But are these two alternative water sources (AWS) viable innovations for solving the problem of irrigation at the local and/or regional level?

In this innovation case study, we examined the technological, environmental and social challenges and keystones regarding the use of AWS (desalination and reclaimed water) for irrigation in two areas of the islands of Gran Canaria and Tenerife (Canary Islands). These two areas are of particular interest because they have expecience with AWS and face challenges with regard to the use of AWS for agricultural purposes that may also be of interest to other European regions planning the development of these innovations.



Quantitative Story-Telling (QST) was used to analyze the role that desalination and treated wastewater reuse can play in the metabolic pattern of European regions with water scarcity. To go through the QST cycle, several different methodologies were integrated within a process of stakeholder engagement (see Figure 2).


First, a background study was performed on the social, institutional and legislative contexts of the development and use of AWS in the Canary Islands. This included a review of the technological innovations in question, the related regulatory framework at European, Spanish and regional levels, as well as an initial exploration of narratives to help frame the various steps of the QST process.

Following, a socio-institutional analysis and a stakeholder mapping were done to set up a round of interviews with a wide variety of different stakeholders with different types of knowledge. A total of 27 in-depth interviews were completed. These formed the basis for narrative analyses and the identification of matterns of concern as to the use of AWS for irrigation in the study areas.

Third, an agricultural survey was carried out on a sample of 31 farmers in Gran Canaria and 37 in Tenerife. Figure 3 shows an example of a surveyed farm. The survey collected information on the farming system activity and its water uses. This information served the quantitative analysis with MuSIASEM (see Figure 2). A processor data array structure was used to connect two different descriptions of the agricultural systems under analysis, following the rationale of a previous MAGIC case study in the region Almería, southern Spain (available in Deliverable 4.1 and Cabello et al., 2019). Processor variables included the water mix from different sources (groundwater, surface water, desalinted seawater, desalinated groundwater and reclaimed water), human activity (time use), land use, organic fertilizers and yields of different crops.


Finally, the results of the narrative (interviews) and quantitative (survey) analyses were used as information inputs in two deliberative workshops (one in each island; see Figure 4) where the viability and desirability of the narratives were assessed under different future scenarios. These workshops engaged more than 30 actors each and served the purpose of generating a reflexive environment about the role played by and the challenges faced in the use and governance of AWS for irrigation in the Canarian context. (More details on these participatory workshops are available on our website; see Gran Canaria workshop and Tenerife workshop).


The outcomes of the workshops were structured and shared with participants to validate the confirmation, falsification or transformation of the narratives on AWS.

Main Outcomes

In general terms, we found (and contributed to) social acceptance of AWS as pertinent innovations to face problems of water scarcity while providing security to farmers in terms of water availability, quality and price. The success of AWS in the Canaries, however, cannot be separated from the context of private marketization of freshwater resources, of public leadership of these innovations and of regulation of their prices through subsidies. While this regulation violates the cost recovery principle of the Water Framework Directive, it is considered a desirable and viable alternative in light of the impossibility of increasing food prices for farmers.

We observed strong concerns about the future of agriculture in the current European policy context. The problem of viability of farming systems gathers more attention than the problem of sustainability of water resources. In fact, the contribution of AWS to the recovery of degraded groundwater resources is a contested narrative, with more successful experiences in Gran Canaria than in Tenerife. On the other hand, in both case studies we found emerging narratives claiming the need to strengthen local food policy and market circuits. Concerning the energy dimension, in both study areas we observed mostly expectations about the role that renewable energy technologies could play in ratcheting down AWS prices. This nexus relation is claimed as a field for future research and innovation.

Challenges of AWS are mostly related to the management of their quality. In the case of desalination, quality challenges refer to the management of inadequate salt balance and the long-term impacts on soils. Reclaimed water faces challenges with regards to the high technical skills and the close monitoring required to deal with emerging contaminants. When confronted with these problems, in both case studies we obtained similar proposals from stakeholders: technical support and training to farmers on the one hand, and education and awareness campaigns to citizens on the other hand.

A full acount of the results is available in our project deliverable.

Follow-up activities

A follow-up participatory activity is scheduled in the first half of 2020. The purpose of this event is to validate the results and final conclusions, encourage national policy-makers in Spain to use the outcomes of this case study, and explore how AWS can contribute to the Water-Energy-Food Nexus sustainability in the European Union at large.

Several local policymakers have already shown interest in the findings of this study. For instance, the Insular Council of Gran Canaria has included the results in the 2030 roadmap of food sovereignty, and the regional General Directorate of Water and the Spanish Ministry of Ecological Transition are including the results of the Tenerife case study in a forthcoming practical case of application of the new water reuse regulation in Spain.

To further encourage the uptake of the outcomes, selected results have been published in the form of scientific articles and a policy brief (see below under 'related links') and have been presented at international conferences and local events. Other dissemination material is in the make to reach stakeholders at international, national (Spain) and regional (Canary Islands) levels.


July 2019


© MAGIC Nexus


MAGIC Nexus. Innovation Alternative Water Sources: Solving water problems or creating a new one?

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