The environmental damage caused by the illegal drilling of wells and subsequent stealing of water to irrigate arid agricultural zones has long been known.
Environmental campaigners have decried the illegal water extraction that has led to the lowering of the water table in some of Spain’s most important wetland areas.
WWF España has long called for the closure of illegal boreholes draining much needed water from natural wetlands in Donaña national park in Andalusia, where the NGO detected around 1000 illegal wells.
Just last week, the European Commission announced that it would be suing Spain in the European Court of Justice (ECJ) over the serious deterioration of the Doñana National Park, and for its failure to implement EU nature and water laws – the EU Water Framework Directive and Birds and Habitats Directives.
The wetlands of Doñana are a haven for migratory birds. Photo: AFP
Further north the wetlands of Ojos del Guadiana and las Tablas de Daimiel wetlands are also under threat.
Every year for the last decade Greenpeace has published a report calling on the authorities to clamp down on the perpetrators.
The last time an official count of illegal boreholes was made by Spain’s environment ministry was in 2006, when an estimated 510,000 illegal wells were known to exist.
Those wells provided the illegal extraction of some 3,570 cubic hectometres of water per year, equivalent to the average consumption of 58 million people – meaning more than doubling the water consumption by the 46 million-strong population of Spain.
Current estimates bandied around in the week since Julen was found, puts the current number of illegal boreholes at more than 1 million across the whole of Spain.
The water is extracted for a fraction of the cost of legal supply and is used to irrigate greenhouses full of crops, keep golf courses green and sometimes even supply new hotels and housing complexes.
In most cases it’s the farmers themselves who drill holes between 20 and 1,200 metres deep through the bedrock to irrigate their own crops.
But, according to a WWF report, some large agricultural firms linked to outside investors are also responsible for sucking out the groundwater without a permit and selling it at a premium to other farmers or developers.
Although fines are often issued, criminal charges are seldom brought.
But if the environmental damage caused by these illegal wells hasn’t been enough to see widespread policy to clampdown on the perpetrators, could the danger to the general public posed by the unmarked holes force a change?
Julen fell down an illegal borehole just 25cm wide. Photo: Guardia Civil
In the days after news that Julen Rosello had slid down the narrow opening of the 100 meter shaft, questions were asked as to how this had been allowed to happen.
As the wells are illegal, there are no regulations regarding how they should be covered up or marked as a danger.
The borehole on a hillside outside the Totalán was on the private property of a relative of the family and was reportedly covered up loosely with a pile of stones.
Since the boy was found, other incidents involving boreholes have made headlines.
Earlier this week, it emerged that a man and his dog had died after falling into an illegal well in Malaga province, the day after Julen’s body was found.
Un hombre y un perro murieron al caer en un pozo en Villanueva del Trabuco (Málaga). Juan Antonio Santamaría, que promovía campañas por los animales, podría haber caído intentando rescatar al perro. Se calcula que hay 500.000 pozos ilegales en España, un riesgo para los animales. pic.twitter.com/yv79Bx2TK7
— Ética Animal (@Etica_Animal) January 28, 2019
Juan Antonio Santamaría and his German Shepherd dog were found by mountain rescuers dead at the bottom of a well near Villanueva del Trabuco after the alarm was raised when failed to return home from a Sunday walk.
The Guardia Civil believe the man likely died in the well after attempting to save his dog who became trapped in it.
That same day a man posted a video of an unmarked well he discovered when he was out walking with his son, aged four and ten-year-old nephew.
— Miguel A. (@mikiacula) January 27, 2019
The borehole, which was located on a rural track outside the town of Ácula in Granada province, had nothing covering the opening and the man, identified only as Miguel, described how his four-year-old had stopped at the opening.
“My son is four years old, he fits perfectly in that hole, I lost my mind thinking about what could have happened,” he said.
Reports of illegal wells are dealt with by Seprona, the Civil Guard unit that deals with environment crimes, but according to Spanish news agency Efe, only five had been closed in the last six years.
By all accounts, the sad fate of Julen was a tragedy waiting to happen.