Green groups pressure Spain over ‘at risk’ wetlands

Environmentalists piled pressure on Spain Wednesday over its sprawling Donaña wetlands, a UNESCO World Heritage site they believe is at risk and could be put on the UN body's list of endangered habitats.

Green groups pressure Spain over 'at risk' wetlands
Archive photo of Donaña wetlands. Photo: AFP

Greenpeace activists blocked natural gas operations near the wetland reserves on Spain's southern coast  – home to more than 4,000 species including the endangered Iberian lynx.   

And WWF made yet another appeal for Donaña, just a day before Spain is due to hand over a report to UNESCO on its management of the wetlands at the request of the Paris-based organisation.

“Donaña is in very serious danger,” Juan Carlos del Olmo, head of WWF Spain, told AFP.

“We don't want it to be put on the list of endangered sites, but soon there won't be any other option.”

The government has defended itself by saying the wetlands are well protected, and are even included in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's green list, which recognises good management of natural areas.

Environmental groups don't dispute that, but argue that activities surrounding the huge area of lagoons, woodlands and pristine beaches are a threat.

WWF says the wetlands now only receive a fifth of the water they need, in part due to illegal farming nearby.

They believe the site also faces further damage with nearby mining, gas and dredging activities.

Utility company Gas Natural Fenosa, for one, has been given permission to use depleted natural gas reservoirs as underground storage sites for later consumption, which involves building pipelines in the fragile area.

Angry Greenpeace activists marched on the site Tuesday, blocking the entrance and departure of lorries for further pipeline construction.    

They were still there on Wednesday afternoon, a spokesman said.    

Gas Natural Fenosa condemned the blockage, saying it had “worked near Donana for close to 30 years with the utmost care for the surroundings.”

Thirsty Donaña

For WWF, though, water is the most pressing problem, since it is being sucked up by up to 2,000 illegal wells and 3,000 hectares of illicit strawberry farms nearby.

Del Olmo said that authorities had started addressing the issue, notifying illegal farms that they will have to close down.  

But he added that the planned dredging of the nearby Guadalquivir river to allow cargo and cruise ships to get to Sevilla's port upstream was still a problem, as it will disturb the ecosystem and attract more salt water into the wetlands.

“The Spanish government continues with its idea of dredging the river,” said del Olmo.

Last year, a UNESCO mission to Donaña concluded this was the most pressing issue.

“If the state party 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 in Danger,” it recommended in a report.

By AFP's Marianne Barriaux 


Police operation targets illegal water tapping in Spain

More than 130 people were arrested or placed under investigation for illegal water tapping last year, Spain’s Guardia Civil police said on Wednesday following a huge operation.

Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park”
Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park” in Andalusia. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP

During the year-long operation, “133 people were arrested or investigated for extracting water through more than 1,533 illegal infrastructure devices”, the police’s environmental unit said in a statement.

A similar operation in 2019 had targeted 107 people.

Spain is one of the European countries most at risk from the impact of drought caused by global warming, scientists say.

Water usage issues are often at the heart of heated political debates in Spain where intensive agriculture plays an important role in the economy.

Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park” in the southern Andalusia region, one of Europe’s largest wetlands and a Unesco World Heritage bird sanctuary.

They were also operating in “in the basins of Spain’s main rivers”.

In Doñana, police targeted 14 people and 12 companies for the illegal tapping of water for irrigation, a police spokesman said.

Ecologists regularly raise the alarm about the drying up of marshes and lagoons in the area, pointing the finger at nearby plantations, notably growing strawberries, which are irrigated by illegally-dug wells.

“The overexploitation of certain aquifers for many reasons, mainly economic, constitutes a serious threat to our environment,” the Guardia Civil said.

The European Court of Justice rapped Spain over the knuckles in June for its inaction in the face of illegal water extraction in Donana which covers more than 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) and is home to more than 4,000 species, including the critically endangered Iberian lynx.

According to the government’s last official estimate, which dates back to 2006, there were more than half a million illegal wells in use.

But in a 2018 study, Greenpeace estimated there were twice as many, calculating that the quantity of stolen water was equivalent to that used by 118 million people — two-and-a-half times the population of Spain.

Spanish NGO SEO/Birdlife also on Wednesday raised the alarm about the “worrying” state of Spain’s wetlands.