Published: 14:27, May 5, 2023 | Updated: 14:55, May 5, 2023
Farms, wildlife at risk as Spanish wetland shrinks
By Reuters

Paper birds hang on strings outside the Spanish Parliament in Madrid, Spain, Nov 24, 2016. Environmentalists have displayed hundreds of colored origami paper birds outside the Parliament to demand greater government action to protect Spain's Donana National Park, one of Europe's most celebrated conservation wetlands, which they say is in danger of being placed on UNESCO's endangered list due to a grave risk from excessive water extraction. (PHOTO / AP)

EL ROCIO - Spain's Donana wetland has been a rich farming area for decades and a wildlife haven for centuries, but climate change is drying it out and has set regional and national authorities on a collision course over how to safeguard its future.

A water meter stands in a dry wetland in Donana natural park, southwest Spain, on Oct 19, 2022. (PHOTO / AP)

Scientists, meanwhile, say the water needs of the farmers who grow thousands of tons of red berries per year are making the problem worse.

Andalusia's conservative regional government plans an amnesty that would legalize additional irrigation around Donana, prompting an outcry from environmentalists

The Donana national park lies atop a 2,700-square km underground water reserve, one of the largest of its kind in Europe and an area almost twice the size of London.

Its beautiful lagoons are being depleted by a long drought and hotter weather, and they are surrounded by a sea of greenhouses and a complex system of pipes that takes water from in some cases illegally drilled wells.

Andalusia's conservative regional government plans an amnesty that would legalize additional irrigation around Donana, prompting an outcry from environmentalists and - with regional and local elections due this month - a pledge from the Socialist-led national government to protect the park.

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The region, and more specifically the province of Huelva, where the park is located, produces 97 percent of Spain's red fruits and is the world's largest exporter of strawberries.

Farmers divided

Farmers are divided over the regional plan.

One group in favor says it only want permission to irrigate with surface water, without jeopardizing the underground reserves.

"There is enough surface water to irrigate all the hectares in the area, some of which are using ground water," their spokesman Julio Diaz told Reuters.

Temporary workers plant strawberries in farm in Almonte, southwest Spain, Oct 18 2022. Farming and tourism had already drained the aquifer feeding Donana. Then climate change hit Spain with record-high temperatures and a prolonged drought this year. (PHOTO / AP)

But the central government says that's not true, and scientists say water extraction, both legal and illegal, is affecting the park's biodiversity.

The reserve also boasts marshlands, scrub woodland and beaches and is home to deer, badgers and endangered species including the Spanish imperial eagle and the Iberian lynx.

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"The lagoons directly depend on the aquifer. If the lagoons are disappearing, it is because the aquifer is diminishing," said Eloy Revilla, head of the Donana Biological Station, calling for policies to reduce dependence on water in these areas because they are not going to be sustainable.

Cracks in the mud are seen in a dry wetland in Donana natural park, southwest Spain, Oct 19, 2022. The European Union has warned Spain for a second time that it won't tolerate renewed plans by regional politicians in the country's south to expand irrigation near the prized Donana wetlands, which scientists and ecologists say are in danger of drying up. (PHOTO / AP)

Last year, Europe experienced its hottest summer on record, compounded by several extreme events including intense heat waves, drought conditions and extensive wildfires, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service, and many scientists say droughts are becoming more frequent and water more scarcely.

As the prolonged drought has left the Guadalquivir river basin's reservoirs at a quarter of capacity, water management authorities last month reduced the amount of water available for legal irrigation.

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That forced those Donana farmers who use legally-extracted water to kill part of their crops to save the rest, and they are not too happy about the regional plan to amnesty hundreds of illegally-watered hectares. WWF ecologists estimate that 1,900 hectares of illegal crops in Donana could be legalized.

"Those who have been cultivating illegally for 15 years are going to be rewarded with surface water so they can irrigate on demand," said Manuel Delgado, spokesman for Puerta Donana farmers association, standing in one of the greenhouses that grows 50 tons of berries per hectare.