The Doñana national park is home to wild horses and flamingos as well as Iberian lynx. Photograph: Rupert Sagar-Musgrave/Alamy Stock Photo
Thursday 15 September 2016
Doñana wetlands in Andalusia is home to thousands of species but has lost most of its natural water due to industry and faces ‘danger’ listing by Unesco
A Spanish wetland home to 2,000 species of wildlife – including around 6 million migratory birds – is on track to join a Unesco world heritage danger list, according to a new report.
Doñana is an Andalusian reserve of sand dunes, shallow streams and lagoons, stretching for 540 square kilometres (209 square miles) where flamingoes feed and wild horses and Iberian lynx still roam.
But the Doñana region is said to have lost 80% of its natural water supplies due to marsh drainage, intensive agriculture, and water pollution from the mining industry.
Spain now has until 1 December to declare Doñana permanently off limits for dredging and industrial activity in a report to Unesco, or face becoming the first EU country to have a national park classified as being “in danger”.
Eva Hernández, a spokeswoman for WWF, which is launching a campaign to save Doñana on Wednesday, said that the park’s situation had become critical.
“Doñana’s biodiversity has eroded over the last 40 years and we are reaching a point of no return,” she said. “We could do things to recover the park – and some things are being done – but the pressures on it from private and public companies are becoming unbearable. We must decide whether it is more important to consume all of Doñana’s resources or to preserve its biodiversity and services to the people.”
According to WWF’s new report, more than 1,000 illegal wells drilled by farmers are accelerating the park’s destruction, as drought-resistant plants replace water-dependent ones in the region.
Industrial activity exacerbates this picture. A recent Unesco decision viewed with “utmost concern” plans to allow the México-Minorbis group to reopen a mine in Aznalcóllar, the scene of one of Spain’s worst ecological disasters in 1998.
Mechtild Rössler, the director of Unesco’s world heritage centre, and a veteran of the clean-up operation following that disaster, said that reopening the mine would be “not at all” compatible with world heritage site status, in her view.
“We also made it very clear that any plans for the approval of gas and oil exploration in or around the park would not be acceptable to us,” she said.
Spain has declared the area under Doñana a “strategic gas storage site” and authorised exploration and storage work by Gas Natural Fenosa within the park’s vicinity.
Most troubling for conservationists is a plan by the port authority of Seville to dredge the local Guadalquivir river to allow access for cargo and cruise ships in 2018.
A Unesco report last year said: “If [Spain] fails to urgently make a permanent and unequivocal commitment to abandon the plan to deepen the Guadalquivir river ... it should lead to the inscription of this property on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger.”
A Spanish supreme court ruling forced a temporary halt to the project last year but it was put back on the agenda by a government decree in January.
Much will hinge on the exact wording of Spain’s letter to Unesco, but “if the report says that they are going ahead with dredging, I will repeat that the committee’s opinion was very clear, so there’s a very real risk of a ‘danger’ listing,” Rössler said.
The European commission has also launched an infringement case against Spain, which could end up in the European court.
A Spanish government spokesman did not respond to questions about the dredging or gas projects, but said: “We support all initiatives to promote the conservation of a natural area so unique and of such high ecological value as Doñana. Spain is doing everything in its power to end the over-exploitation of the Doñana aquifers and solve the regional problem of water scarcity.”
Doñana receives a liquid lifeline from the Guadalquivir and Guadiamar rivers, and from a large underground aquifer. But these resources have dwindled at the expense of river modifications and intensive irrigation schemes.
The Doñana basin contains Europe’s most productive rice field as well as being a fruit basket for Spain’s export to other EU countries. Some 70% of Spain’s strawberries are produced in the region, raising €400m a year - compared to the €74m a year that beach, nature and cultural tourism brings in.
But licenced farms are disadvantaged in their competition with hundreds of illegal operations that siphon off water from the park across 3,000 hectares of fields….
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