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ENVIRONMENT

Mar Menor: Spain unveils plan for revival of crisis-hit lagoon

Spain's environment ministry on Thursday unveiled a roadmap for regenerating the stricken Mar Menor, one of Europe's largest saltwater lagoons that is slowly dying from agricultural pollution.

Mar Menor: Spain unveils plan for revival of crisis-hit lagoon
A dead fish decomposes on the seashore in Puerto Bello de la Manga on August 25, 2021, in La Manga del Mar Menor, Murcia, Spain. Tonnes of fish and crustaceans washed ashore in August in Spain's Mar Menor, once a lagoon paradise that is slowly dying from agricultural pollution. Photo: Jose Miguel FERNANDEZ / AFP

The plan would curb some harmful agricultural practices blamed for pushing the lagoon in southeastern Spain to what ecologists have described as “the brink of ecological collapse”.

“The environmental crisis of the Mar Menor is unsustainable, the damage must be stopped immediately,” Environment Minister Teresa Ribera said as she unveiled the 382-million-euro ($440-million) investment plan on a visit to the area.

In August, millions of dead fish and crustaceans began washing up on the lagoon’s shores, scenes that experts have repeatedly blamed on agricultural pollution.

They say the sea creatures died due to a lack of oxygen caused by hundreds of tonnes of fertiliser nitrates leaking into the water, triggering a phenomenon called eutrophication which collapses aquatic ecosystems.

The ministry’s plan for 2022-26 includes short- and medium-term steps to slash the contaminants entering the lagoon, ending illegal irrigation practices and revitalising the Mar Menor’s shoreline.

READ MORE: Five stats to understand why Spain’s Mar Menor is full of dead fish

It outlines several environmental regeneration projects to support biodiversity in and around the lagoon, including the creation of a 1.5-kilometre (one mile) buffer zone along the Mar Menor’s shores.

Earlier this year, Ribera accused regional authorities of turning a blind eye to farming irregularities in the Campo de Cartagena, an intensively farmed area surrounding the lagoon.

The plan involves cracking down on illegal irrigation and cutting off supplies to farms without irrigation rights, reviewing permits for wastewater disposal and monitoring livestock farms.

Earlier this month, ecologists submitted a formal complaint to the EU over Spain’s “continued failure” to protect the Mar Menor, urging the European Commission to take “immediate action”.

Although the lagoon is protected under various EU directives and the UN environment programme, they said Spain has failed to comply with its legal obligations, taking “only superficial steps” to safeguard the Mar Menor from damaging agricultural practices.

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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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