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HEATWAVE

WHO says heatwave caused 1,700 deaths in Spain and Portugal

The World Health Organisation's European office on Friday said the heatwave baking Europe has caused over 1,700 deaths on the Iberian peninsula alone, calling for joint action to tackle climate change.

A street thermometer reading 44 degrees Celsius in Seville
A street thermometer reading 44 degrees Celsius during a heatwave in Seville on July 12, 2022. JORGE GUERRERO / AFP

“Heat kills. Over the past decades, hundreds of thousands of people have died as a result of extreme heat during extended heatwaves, often with simultaneous wildfires,” WHO regional director for Europe Hans Kluge said in a
statement.

“This year, we have already witnessed more than 1,700 needless deaths in the present heatwave in Spain and Portugal alone,” Kluge added.

The regional director stressed that exposure to extreme heat “often exacerbates pre-existing health conditions” and noted that “individuals at either end of life’s spectrum – infants and children, and older people – are at particular risk”.

Responding to a query by AFP, WHO Europe explained that the figure is a preliminary estimate based on reports by national authorities, and that the toll had “already increased and will increase further over the coming days”.

The true number of deaths linked to the heatwave won’t be known for weeks, he said, adding “this scorching summer season is barely halfway done”.

“Ultimately, this week’s events point yet again to the desperate need for pan-European action to effectively tackle climate change,” Kluge said.

The regional head of the UN health body said governments need to demonstrate will and leadership in implementing the Paris Agreement, which set the goal of limiting end-of-century warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6
degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels — and preferably not beyond 1.5C.

He said that members of the WHO’s European region — 53 countries and regions including several in Central Asia — “have already demonstrated that they can work together on urgent threats to global health,” and that it was
“time for us to do so again.”

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ENVIRONMENT

Spain grants personhood status to threatened Mar Menor lagoon

Spain has granted personhood status to Murcia's Mar Menor saltwater lagoon in order to give its threatened ecosystem better protection, the first time such a measure has been taken in Europe.

Spain grants personhood status to threatened Mar Menor lagoon

The initiative to grant the status to the Mar Menor — one of Europe’s largest saltwater lagoons — was debated in parliament after campaigners collected over 500,000 signatures backing it.

It now becomes law after Spain’s Senate, the upper house of parliament, voted in favour of the proposal, with only far-right party Vox opposing it.

This will allow the rights of the lagoon located in southeastern Spain to be defended in court, as though it were a person or business.

“The Mar Menor becomes the first European ecosystem with its own rights after the Senate approved the bill to give it a legal identity,” the president of the Senate, Ander Gil, tweeted after the vote.

The lagoon will now be legally represented by a group of caretakers made up of local officials, scientists who work in the area and local residents.

Ecologists have for years warned that the Mar Menor is slowly dying due to the runoff of fertilisers from nearby farms.

In August 2021, millions of dead fish and crustaceans began washing up on the shores of the lagoon, which experts blamed on agricultural pollution.

They argue that sealife died due to a lack of oxygen caused by hundreds of tonnes of fertiliser nitrates leaking into the waters causing a phenomenon known as eutrophication which collapses aquatic ecosystems.

Two similar catastrophic pollution events occurred in 2016 and 2019.

Ecologists in October 2021 submitted a formal complaint to the EU over what they called Spain’s “continued failure” to protect the Mar Menor, which they warned was on the brink of “ecological collapse”.

The following month the Spanish government unveiled a 382-million-euro ($377 million) plan to regenerate the lagoon.

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.

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