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Innovation Alternative Water Sources

Innovation Alternative Water Sources

ITC, UAB and JRC team


Solving water problems or creating a new one?


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.


Figure 1: Map of the Canary Islands (Spain) showing the location of the case studies in Gran Canaria and Tenerife (red-shaded).




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).


Figure 2: The Quantitative Story-Telling (QST) cycle developed in the Canary Islands case studies (left) and the various methodologies employed to implement the QST cycle (right).


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.


Figure 3: The agricultural holding of one of the surveyed farmers.


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).


Figure 4: Participatory workshops in Gran Canaria (left) and Valle Guerra, Tenerife (right).


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. 


Related Links



Press releases


EnergyHub.es (20 Sep 2019); El Diario Agricola (canariasahora/agricola) (20 Sep 2019); La Voz de la Palma (20 Sep 2019); El Tambor (20 Sep 2019); Noticias Canarias(20 Sep 2019); El Digital de Canarias (21 Sep 2019); Noticias Islas Canarias (20 Sep 2019), ITC (20 Sep 2019).



Teams Involved

Alternative water resources and the illusion of control

Alternative water resources and the illusion of control

David Romero Manrique, Violeta Cabello and Ângela Guimarães Pereira

The theory of the illusion of control was developed within the psychological sciences during the 70s by Ellen Langer. The illusion of control is defined as an expectancy of a personal success probability that exceeds the objective probability of the outcome (Langer, E., 1975). In other words, it is the tendency of humans to believe they have full control over situations that actually exceed their capacity of control.

The overestimation of the efficacy of technological solutions to address complex situations in water governance is one example. Under this ‘illusion’, Alternative Water Resources (AWR), namely desalinated and reclaimed waters, have emerged in the last decades as the new panacea for agricultural production in regions facing water scarcity. The construction of AWR as a technological fix to water scarcity needs examination.

In the Canary Islands, we explored narratives about the feasibility and desirability of these technologies with a wide range of actors. Through an integrated methodology combining quantitative, qualitative and participatory analysis, the following questions were investigated: what role do AWR play in the recovery or reduction of pressures on natural sources? Is it plausible and desirable to implement these technologies within future scenarios of climate change, energy crisis or hardening of export conditions? What role do ‘alternative waters’ play in agricultural development if we consider current limitations such as its price, quality, emerging pollutants and impacts on the soil, and the environment?

Similarly to many other Southern European areas, several dynamics have historically contributed to increasing the pressure on fresh water resources in this region: population growth (local and stationary), strong competition among economic sectors (industrial, tourism and agriculture) and the gradual decrease of the average annual rainfall, anticipating the effects of climate change. This is a complex situation which faces different types of uncertainty and clearly exceeds the governance capacity of regional and local water-related actors.

In our study, we observed how the invited actors justify the need for AWR by referring to water scarcity, which is attributed to the depletion of freshwater resources and the effects of climate change. Other drivers for water scarcity (population pressure, sectoral competition) are mentioned only in alternative narratives held by a few actors with low stakes and lower capacity to articulate them. Moreover, we found narratives that questioned the causal connection between the use of AWR and the recovery of freshwater resources in the absence of other more comprehensive measures.

Under such complex social-ecological situation, expecting that AWR by themselves will solve all water problems is most likely an overestimation of efficacy, even more if the risks associated with the exploitation of these technologies are ignored. The framing of AWR as a panacea to govern the waters in the Canary Islands allows to maintain the status quo and avoiding the question of what is wrong in the relationship between water and the agro-economic model of the Canary Islands, while keeping the illusion of control. 



Langer, E. J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of personality and social psychology, 32(2), 311.