Article Review | A socio-ecological model of the Segura River basin, Spain by Zuluaga-Guerra et al. (2023)

June 8, 2023

NEWAVE Early stage researcher Paula Andrea Zuluaga-Guerra, along with Julia Martinez-Fernandez, Miguel Angel Esteve-Selma, Jampel Dell'Angelo recently published their work “A socio-ecological model of the Segura River basin, Spain” in the journal Ecological Modeling.  

The paper examines the Segura River basin in South-East Spain, the region in continental Europe with the lowest annual rainfall rate (Ángel Ródena, 2015). This area has suffered a persistent water crisis for the last five decades as a result of the inherent trade-offs of intensive agriculture and the food production chain, which shape patterns of freshwater consumption and threaten the livelihoods of rural communities and contribute to ecological deterioration. This crisis is driven by increasing agricultural pressures and the dominant water governance paradigm, the narrative of the ‘hydraulic mission,’ a belief in the domination of nature through the control and exploitation of water ecosystems. 

Zuluaga-Guerra et al. have adopted a socio-ecological systems (SES) perspective in their research, believing this approach can better capture the feedback loops and cycles that the system’s dynamics are built off of, therefore explaining the “seemingly intractable” problems resulting from the “unchecked expansion” of irrigated agriculture in the basin. They argue that the dominant water governance paradigm informs current policies and perpetuates economic interests that are exploitative of and disconnected from the very socio-ecological systems they rely upon. Their goal is to apply the SES perspective to generate nuanced numerical and qualitative policy-relevant insights that accurately reflect the complexity of the crisis facing the basin. 

The researchers examined the growth of irrigated agriculture across the basin, specifically examining the role the Tagus-Segura Transfer (TST) project plays in triggering feedback loops which are then reinforced by La Confederación Hidrográfica del Segura (CHS), the regional water management body.

The TST project has fed water into the Segura basin since the late 1970s; however, the volume of transferred water has not only never met the original supply expectations, but it has not been able to keep pace with growing demands, leading to a persistent water imbalance, groundwater overexploitation, and polluted water flows. Simultaneously, the number of irrigated areas outside of TST jurisdiction, which should not be able to access the TST for irrigation purposes under CHS rules, has been steadily growing for decades. The researchers examined these trends and compared them to the Regeneracionista, the dominant water governance paradigm in the region, which seeks to correct that natural water imbalance of the arid landscape through hydraulic infrastructure, which is often implemented without risk or viability assessments. 

In their application of the SES perspective, Zuluaga-Guerra et al. use canonical dynamic system modelling methods to delineate the trajectory of the Segura River basin Socio-Ecological System. They specifically focus on the non-linear properties of the system, identifying the feedback loops that mobilise system changes and perturbations which lead to large, persistent, and unexpected reorganisation phenomena which impact both the structure and the functioning of the Segura River basin Socio-Ecological System. The researchers identified two primary feedback loops in the system: a self-reinforcing TST water demand-extraction mechanism leading to the expansion of intensive agriculture, and an institutional feedback loop portraying the CHS’ leniency in fulfilling its role. The CHS is a key actor in this water system, as many water abstractor groups act in anticipation of its directives - however, Zuluaga-Guerra et al. characterise the CHS’ position as passive, and lenient, allowing over-extractive behaviours to continue and intensify. 

The use of the SES model as applied by Zuluaga-Guerra et al. formally demonstrates the acute socio-ecological deterioration of the Segura river basin, justifying their call for profound change in the way water governance in the region is conceived and implemented. 

They recommend shifting to a long-term systems perspective on the behavioural links between irrigated agriculture and institutional performance, specifically redefining the role and mission of the CHS to guide it towards a new perspective on water governance. If the CHS should move away from a passive position of monitoring and controlling water usage into actively practising waterscape transformation by being conscious of its influence over water abstractor groups, this change could ripple across the entire system, changing the role of the public and leading to collective transformation via engagement, coordination, and cooperation. Making this essential change to the central dynamics of the Segura River basin Socio-Ecological System could, in time, halt or begin to reverse the worst environmental and social impacts of the region’s water crisis. 

Read the full article here.  


Ángel Ródena, M. (2015). The Integrated Water Management in Stressed Basins: Segura River Experience.

Zuluaga-Guerra, P. A., Martinez-Fernandez, J., Esteve-Selma, M. A., & Dell’Angelo, J. (2023). A socio-ecological model of the Segura River basin, Spain. Ecological Modelling, 478, 110284.