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WEATHER

Spain battles wildfires as heatwave kicks in

Firefighters battled three wildfires in Spain on Thursday as a heatwave that has enveloped southeastern Europe in recent days shifted west towards the Iberian peninsula.

Spain battles wildfires as heatwave kicks in
Wildfires burn across Spain. Photo: DESIREE MARTIN / AFP

Dozens of firefighters backed by four water-dropping aircraft were on the scene of a blaze in the northeastern province of Tarragona which has so far destroyed some 40 hectares (100 acres) of protected forest, local officials said.

Two smaller fires were burning in the northern wine-producing region of La Rioja and the northeastern province of Zaragoza, which involved two planes.

The wildfires come as temperatures were forecast to reach highs of around 40°C (104°F) in much of Spain and neighbouring Portugal in the coming days.

The mercury could hit the mid-40s in some areas of southern Spain.

Scientists say global temperature rises powered by manmade climate change will make heatwaves more frequent and more intense, and their impact more widespread.

A heatwave fed by hot air from North Africa has engulfed large parts of the Mediterranean region in recent days, contributing to massive wildfires and killing dozens of people in Italy, Turkey, Greece and Algeria.

All but three of Spain’s 17 regions were on alert for heat while Portugal’s weather office warned that the centre and north of the country as well as parts of the southern Algarve province were on “maximum” alert for wildfires.

In 2017, fires killed dozens of people in Portugal.

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa urged people to avoid “risky behaviours” which could cause wildfires.

“We know that the next few days are going to be difficult,” he told reporters on Thursday during a visit to a civil protection headquarters. “We are facing a permanent challenge that is the result of climate change,” he added.

Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region on Thursday banned camping in forests and sporting activities in rural areas to reduce the risk of wildfires.

It also prohibited the use of some farm equipment during the hottest hours of the day.

For the first time since 1920, temperatures are forecast to soar above 40°C for three consecutive days at Madrid’s central Retiro park, tweeted Ruben del Campo, the spokesman for Spain’s national weather office AEMET.

The number of heatwaves registered in Spain between 2011 and 2020 is double
the number recorded in each of the three previous decades, he told AFP

There have already been several devastating wildfires in Spain this summer, including in Catalonia’s Cap de Creus Natural Park, another in the province of Tarragona, and on the Canary Island of Tenerife. 

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ENVIRONMENT

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.

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