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Threat #1: the water crisis in Doñana

A very strong water deficit is felt in Doñana, the most prestigious wetland in Spain, a process that has unfortunately been going on for at least fifty years and has been greatly aggravated in the last two decades. The increasing pressure exerted by agro-industry and mass tourism (two excessively powerful economic sectors) has never diminished throughout this period, quite the contrary. At the same time, climatic conditions have worsened with severe drops in rainfall, partly attributable to climate change. On the one hand, ever more resources are being pumped from groundwater; on the other, less rainwater floods the wetland and recharges its aquifer. The result is a repetition of ‘bad’ years in Doñana, that is to say dry years, even downright arid.

Overexploitation of water resources in Doñana: the point of no return? Infographic: G3-guides / CC-BY.

Overexploitation of water resources in Doñana: the point of no return? Infographic: G3-guides / CC-BY.

The controversial political decisions and the drought of winter 2021/22 probably mark an inflection point to the point of wondering if we have not crossed a point of no return with regard to the management of water resources. … Wetlands are both fragile (refuge of aquatic species, often rare and vulnerable) and resilient (the great power of water, even after several years of drought)… Doñana will remain Doñana, even if transformed, amputated and diminished… On the other hand, the inhabitants and the agricultural crops cannot survive without water. The water stress situation is so high that it has generated a major water conflict.

Chevaux féraux 'Retuerta' des marais de Doñana

Notions of hydrology in Doñana

Let us recall some basic notions.

More than a huge wetland, Doñana is a real collection of aquatic ecosystems with excessively variable conditions depending mainly on the time of flooding and salinity: there are ponds, lagoons, estuaries, marshes and canals, and even Mediterranean streams.

Until the first half of the 20th century, the marshes were mainly fed by the Guadalquivir, but also by the contribution of the tides and local precipitation. Since the transformation and reclamation of the 1960s, the contribution of river and tidal waters has drastically decreased, with the marshes becoming mainly dependent on rainwater. This change explains a great aridification of the environmental conditions.

The geology is excessively important in Doñana: the whole sector is mainly sandy and filters rainwater very quickly, recharging the superficial aquifers that flow into small Mediterranean rivers (Rocina, Partido), which in turn direct the water towards the clayey (impermeable) and shallow marshy area.

All these considerations show 1) the importance of the state of conservation of the aquifer which contributes enormously to the impoundment of the famous “Marismas del Bajo Guadalquivir” and all the dune lagoons; and 2) the importance, especially in summer, of peripheral transformed areas (rice fields, fish farms) which conserve water for a greater part of the year than the marshes themselves.

The degradation of aquatic ecosystems is at the very origin of the national park. It has been extensively studied by scientists from the Biological Station of Doñana and the University of Seville, and denounced by conservation NGOs, mainly WWF and Ecologistas en Acción. It should be noted that the political parties in power in the region are largely responsible for an increasingly untenable situation, because they have always avoided the effective regulation of water resources, in order, on the one hand, not to stop a powerfull and millionaire economic engine and, on the other hand, to ensure their electoral base.

“Red fruits”: Spanish strawberries and berries

A sea of plastic greenhouses dedicated to the cultivation of strawberries and berries extends in the periphery of the protected areas, west of El Rocío, and consume more than 90 hm3 annually. This powerful agro-industry has created considerable environmental (predation of water resources) and social (immigrant labor very often exploited; establishment of xenophobic political parties) problems which tarnish the reputation of the sector and degrade the interest of its production for increasingly environmentally conscious consumers.

serres plastiques Huelva

Evolution of irrigated crops in plastic greenhouses in the province of Huelva

The surface water tables of the Doñana sandy mantle are particularly sensitive to agricultural extractions. As a result, the entire La Rocina watershed is dried up, even though it is the main tributary of the La Madre marshes visible in El Rocío… The Abalario ponds, the Acebuche lagoons and the heart of the National Park are hard hit.

In 2014, a Development Plan for the Doñana’s forest crown was approved, despite environmental pressures, legalizing all plots legally or illicitly transformed until the year 2004 (“legal” farmers), and contemplating the elimination of crops processed after that date (“pirate” farmers). The second part of the plan was never implemented.

The WWF estimates that around 1,000 illegal artesian wells are used to irrigate these crops, with one farmer recently covering a section of a stream to store water.

In 2021, the Guadalquivir Hydrographic Confederation (national administration) had no choice but to declare the Doñana aquifer in a state of overexploitation (see state of the Doñana aquifer). Water resources are drastically decreasing, which promises to jeopardize the sector… whose main claim is to capture water from the nearby Tinto-Odiel-Piedras watershed to continue its activity.

During 2021, the European Commission is sending a very harsh card to Spain to urge it to respect environmental standards and ensure the conservation of Doñana. Nevertheless, at the beginning of 2022, the Andalusian Parliament votes, in the midst of a drought, the amnesty of the 1,600 illegal ha, which represent approximately 10% of red berries’ sector, thus opening a serious institutional crisis.

Matalascañas: a pump in the heart of Doñana / summer

The seaside resort of Matalascañas, developed in the 1970s on the very outskirts of the National Park, welcomes 150,000 holidaymakers in summer (up to 300,000 people on certain weekends) as well as an important golf course shamefully self-proclaimed ecological. Three cubic hectometres (hm3) of fresh water are pumped into the groundwater directly impacting the large nearby dune lagoons, some of which are now permanently dry.

To top it off, the treatment plant is insufficient and residual water leaks occur on a regular basis.

tourisme de masse Huelva

Évolution du tourisme dans la province de Huelva

MORE INFO: Díaz-Paniagua & Aragonés (2015). Permanent and temporary ponds in Doñana National Park (SW Spain) are threatened by desiccation. Limnetica, 34(2):407-424.

Rice fields and polders: irrigated crops in full mutation

To the east, in the province of Seville. Crops in rice fields and polders consume up to 200 hm3. This water is mainly channeled through various canals that drain the entire Guadalquivir watershed. Curiously, the river often carries more water during the summer period for the needs of the rice fields than during the rainy season. Only rare flood phenomena restore the natural order.

Sector problems: high water consumption to combat salinity. strong increase in turbidity for several years and clogging problems.

In a context of general shortage of water resources and exponential increase in irrigated crops (‘modernized’ olive groves), the question of sharing water between farming communities.

The situation is such that recently large landowners want to transform part of the rice fields into olive groves.

Threat #2: forest fires

Doñana forest fires and Moguer fire 2017

2017 Doñana fire: 8,486 ha of pine forests and scrublands gone up in smoke. Infographic: G3-guides / CC-BY.

Menace # 3 : Désastre minier d’Aznalcazar de 1998

Doñana Disaster of Aznalcazar April 25, 1998

Aznalcazar disaster April 25, 1998: 4 hm3 of toxic sludge. Infographic: G3-guides / CC-BY.