Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

How the Spanish Government Funds Irrigation Modernization

The State Society for Agricultural Infrastructure (Sociedad Estatal de Infraestructuras Agrarias, SEIASA) is the agency that funds irrigation modernization projects across Spain. The agency is mandated by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food to help finance various modernization projects in irrigation communities (which are similar to U.S. irrigation districts) across Spain that have been declared to be in the general interest. It generally advances half of the total cost of these projects and holds title to the systems constructed until its initial investment is paid back, 50 years later. In its 20 years of existence, SEIASA has facilitated the investment of more than 2 billion euros ($2.37 billion) in irrigation modernization. In this interview, Victor Morales Godoy, SEIASA’s technical director, tells Irrigation Leader about the importance of the agency’s activities. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position as technical director of SEIASA. 

Victor Morales Godoy: I was trained as an agricultural engineer at the Superior Technical School of Agricultural Engineering at the University of León (Spain). From among the fascinating range of disciplines that an agricultural engineer can pursue in their professional career, I chose a path intimately tied up with hydraulics and with irrigation in particular. 

Greenhouses in Almería in the southern Spanish region of Andalucia.
Berry cultivation in Huelva in the southern Spanish region of Andalucia.
Grain cultivation in León in north-central Spain.

I took my first steps as an agricultural engineer at TRAGSATEC, a Spanish engineering firm that forms part of the TRAGSA Group, a national and international standard setter in irrigation projects. At TRAGSATEC, I had the opportunity to develop and direct important irrigation projects throughout Spain. 

Since November 2014, I have held the position of technical director of the state-owned company SEIASA. I joined SEIASA when it was founded in 2000 and have carried out a number of roles and responsibilities within it, participating actively in the various irrigation planning efforts conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food, under whose responsibility SEIASA falls. I feel fortunate to be part of this organization. 

As technical director, my mission is to carry out, along with my team, the modernization projects that the ministry entrusts to us, from the development stage to their final execution and operation by our customers, the irrigation communities. The technical section of SEIASA employs the best professionals in these fields. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about SEIASA and its history. 

Victor Morales Godoy: SEIASA was formed 20 years ago. It is a public company that is wholly owned by the General Directorate of State Assets (which is part of the Ministry of Finance) and is set up as an instrumentality of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food. It is administered by the General Directorate for Rural Development, Innovation, and Agri-Food Training, an agency of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food. 

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food entrusts SEIASA with the execution of various irrigation modernization and consolidation projects that have been declared to be in the general interest and are included in the current National Irrigation Plan. This is agreed to via a convention signed by both parties that establishes general guidelines for SEIASA’s activities related to the advancement, contracting, and operation of the projects in question.

Olive trees in Jaén in the southern Spanish region of Andalucia.

SEIASA’s objectives include the following. First, it works on the advancement and contracting of investment in the irrigation modernization and consolidation projects that have been included in the National Irrigation Plan and declared to be in the general interest. The systems built through this process are owned by SEIASA until its initial investment is repaid by their users or operators. When appropriate, SEIASA operates these projects in agreement with their users. Second, SEIASA carries out the financing of projects that have not been declared in the general interest; these projects are carried out in conjunction with their users and, as appropriate, with Spain’s autonomous communities (regional governments). Finally, SEIASA provides consulting and technical assistance with regard to irrigation planning and management techniques.

The steering committee of SEIASA is formed by the executive president, the technical director, and the economic-financial director. This committee is in charge of a total of 73 workers, half of whom are senior engineers and technicians who specialize in irrigation modernization and consolidation projects.

Irrigation Leader: What is the breakdown of SEIASA’s financing between Spain’s national budget and European Union (EU) funds?

Victor Morales Godoy: SEIASA is the beneficiary of EU funds as well as of funds from Spain’s National Program for Rural Development and from the rural development programs of Spain’s regional governments. For SEIASA to access funds from a regional government’s rural development programs, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food must sign a framework agreement with the appropriate office of that government.

Of the 2 billion euros’ worth of investment that SEIASA has carried out over the last 20 years, approximately 48 percent of the funding has come from SEIASA’s own contributions, 29 percent from funds provided by the irrigators themselves, and 23 percent from EU funds and funds from the regional governments. 

Irrigation Leader: What is the financing structure for SEIASA’s investments? 

Victor Morales Godoy: Before the financing and execution of the projects takes place, SEIASA must sign an agreement with the users who have an interest in the project, covering the financial conditions for its realization and operation. When appropriate, this agreement also considers the economic aid provided by regional governments.

Regulating reservoirs in mountainous irrigated zones in Cáceres, Extremadura.

The general financial structure laid out by those agreements is that 50 percent of the total cost of the projects is advanced by SEIASA during the execution of the project and the remaining 50 percent is paid by the irrigation community during the execution of the project, up through the final settlement, which occurs after a guarantee period of about 2 years. Depending on the region and other circumstances, EU funds or regional government funds may also play a role in the financing. The advance financing that SEIASA provides is paid back without interest by the irrigation community in 25 yearly payments, beginning in the 26th year after the project is finalized and ending in the 50th year after it is finalized. These payments allow SEIASA to recoup its initial investment. 

The irrigation districts provide the land needed for the projects and pay for any additional land that needs to be purchased as well. The systems built in this manner are generally owned by SEIASA until its initial investment is fully repaid, although SEIASA can, in its agreements with the users, establish schemes by which they can acquire title to these systems after at least guaranteeing the repayment of SEIASA’s investment. 

Irrigation Leader: What are the most significant kinds of modernization projects SEIASA engages in? 

Victor Morales Godoy: Keeping in mind the great diversity of Spain’s landscapes and the comparable diversity of irrigated areas we have modernized, SEIASA has carried out projects in irrigation districts as large as 20,000 hectares (49,421 acres) or as small as 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres). 

All the irrigation modernization projects we’ve worked on involve the improvement of transportation and distribution systems and an improvement of our capacity to regulate water resources, enabling the development and implementation of more efficient irrigation technologies and incorporating systems for the application and use of water that permit us to evaluate the real-time water needs of crops and the optimal timing for delivering that water. 

Another important step forward in irrigation modernization, which has been made possible by irrigation communities’ professionalization and training programs, has been the introduction of information and communications technologies that allow for the real-time monitoring of installations and the early detection of damage. Our projects frequently involve sensor systems that monitor the climate, soil conditions, and plant growth; the use of remote sensing, geographical information systems, and drones; the monitoring of wells and aquifers; and information technology tools for technical, administrative, and maintenance management. 

Irrigation Leader: How much money does SEIASA disburse in a typical year? 

Victor Morales Godoy: SEIASA is tasked with carrying out the activities contained in its agreements with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food. The realization of these activities is conditional on the fulfilment of the projected financing and the realization of any necessary capital increases. That means we can’t really speak of a typical yearly investment. SEIASA carried out its highest investment in 2008, amounting to nearly 600 million euros. 

Irrigation Leader: Please give us an overview of irrigated agriculture in Spain.

Victor Morales Godoy: Irrigation communities are public law corporations associated with the public river basin agencies that manage water within the hydrographical regions of Spain. They are institutions with a long historical tradition; have extensive knowledge of the distribution of water resources and irrigation; and are widely recognized on a national and international scale for their planning capacities, public service, and technological development. 

Agricultural production in Spain is heavily dependent on soil and climatic conditions; the demographic and economic pressures present in various parts of the country; and various regional, environmental, and sector-specific policies, especially the EU's Common Agricultural Policy. 

Spain’s geographic and socioeconomic characteristics and its treasured agricultural and cultural history mean that we have a high number of production systems in Spain. The same can be said about the diversity of irrigation communities in our country. This means that Spain’s irrigation modernization projects need to address an extremely diverse agricultural landscape, including large irrigable zones where we find extensive plantings of crops like alfalfa, corn, potatoes, rye, sugar beets, and wheat; our important olive groves and vineyards; our Europe-leading production of citrus fruit, including lemons, oranges, and mandarin oranges; our excellent international position in the production of berries, including blackberries, cranberries, raspberries, and strawberries; our important zones of high-value tropical fruit production, which includes avocadoes and mangoes; and our global-standard-setting intensive horticultural sector. 

Irrigation Leader: What are the top challenges for irrigation in Spain? 

Victor Morales Godoy: Agriculture in Spain is inconceivable without irrigation. The current COVID‑19 pandemic highlights more than ever the important role of irrigated agriculture as a strategic sector capable of guaranteeing a basic level of food to the population. 

Given Spain’s extreme variation of geography and climate and considering the importance of climate change, rural depopulation, and food security, the modernization of irrigation is a comprehensive strategy that addresses challenges related to water, soil, and biodiversity. It aims to achieve a balance between the sustainable intensification of high-quality food production and the mitigation of the effects of climate change. 

The 2019 data from Spain’s National Institute of Statistics conclusively show that between 2004 and 2016, the agricultural sector reduced its water use by 2,859 cubic hectometers (2,317,832 acre-feet), amounting to an overall reduction close to 16 percent. Over the same time period, according to the 2018 Survey on Growing Areas and Yields, the total irrigated area in Spain grew from 3,223,636 hectares (7,965,778 acres) to 3,655,417 hectares (9,032,732 acres). These figures indicate a reduction of water consumption of up to 1,430 cubic meters per hectare (20,436 cubic feet per acre). 

The continued modernization of irrigation in Spain has optimized water management within irrigation management entities, contributing to the progressive development of more efficient systems. Information from the 2018 Survey on Growing Areas and Yields also shows that 52.69 percent of Spain’s irrigated land, amounting to 1.98 million hectares (4.89 million acres) is watered by microirrigation systems like drip irrigation, making Spain the top country in the world in terms of land area using microirrigation. This means that the reduction and optimization of water consumption in irrigation has direct effects on the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. 

Another difficult challenge is the alarming population gap that Spain is experiencing. Depopulation has direct effects on agricultural activity and should be combated with measures that increase the profitability of agricultural production, such as the modernization of irrigation. An analysis of the demographic evolution of Spain during the last decade compared with the ratio of irrigated to total cultivable area clearly shows that the greatest loss of population has occurred in the provinces where the dry land/irrigated land ratio is highest. Irrigation modernization is, without a doubt, an effective tool in the fight against the depopulation of rural areas. 

Ultimately, the close to 2 billion euros that the ministry has invested in irrigation modernization projects via SEIASA has affected more than 500,000 hectares (1,235,526 acres) and benefited more than 190,000 families across the country. These efforts have given Spain concrete experience that puts it in the first rank of global knowledge of the agricultural infrastructure needed to face up to the global challenges we now face. 

Irrigation Leader: What is your vision for the future of SEIASA? 

Victor Morales Godoy: Irrigation modernization continues to be our priority, as has been repeatedly made clear by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food in various fora, including the Spanish Congress of Deputies and Senate. The importance of SEIASA’s past efforts in irrigation modernization—which have had clear environmental, economic, and social effects and have clearly contributed to facing the new challenges of climate change—mean that it is critically important for it to continue to carry out the irrigation modernization work that the ministry assigns it. 

Victor Morales Godoy is the technical director of SEIASA. He can be contacted at v.morales@seiasa.es. For more information about SEIASA, visit seiasa.es.