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Doñana, a park running dry

The marsh which the deer is crossing looks like a desert
The marsh which the deer is crossing looks like a desert / Andoni Canela / WWF
  • Strawberry plantations and thousands of illegal wells, in addition to climate change, are posing a serious threat to the most valuable wetland in Europe

Miguel Delibes de Castro, naturalist and director for 12 years of the Biological Station at Doñana, says that man is a catastrophe for all other living beings. Perhaps that statement seems unnatural but it is so simple that it may just hold the explanation for the delicate present condition of a place which is considered the most important wetland in Europe. Doñana, among other threats faced by its tens of thousands of hectares of land, is slowly and inexplicably drying up.

The park is completely dependent on water and every year the aquifer becomes drier. This is a disastrous trend for the marshes, the lagoons, the flora and fauna. It has been overexploited to such an extent that it would take between 30 and 60 years to recover completely, and creating a very difficult situation for the hundreds of thousands of birds which arrive from Africa or northern Europe each year.

Doñana also has fantastic woodland and 32 kilometres of beaches where there are no buildings, something almost unheard-of in Spain, but its wetland is the most important part.

“It has now rained for three consecutive days and I know it must seem crazy for us to say that it is drying up; if it rained for three weeks at a time this would even flood, but the problem isn’t what we can see. The aquifer dropped to its lowest ever levels during the last major drought in 199, and now there are parts which are at the same level even though it has rained more. The worst thing is that no water is being saved for when the next big drought occurs,” warns Juanjo Carmona,the spokesperson for Doñana at the WWF, one of the most important nature conservation organisations in the world.

At present there appears to be plenty of water, but it is an illusion. The problem is the water table, the underground flow which is being increasingly exploited.

Many people near Doñana use its water and over 1,000 illegal wells dot the landscape. In the western part, there has been an exorbitant increase in agriculture.

“In theory that should be an asset, such as with olive groves or vines; they are basic in a natural area, but irrigation has grown out of all proportion and in a disorderly fashion, and the agriculture is taking up public space on the mountain,” explains Juanjo.

Strawberry crops are expanding from Huelva and recently so have blueberries.

In the eastern part, in Seville, there are rice fields, and these contribute to the overexploitation of the aquifer, says Juanjo Carmona. “Demand keeps increasing and now, in addition, they want to open Aznalcóllar again. The authorities say the solution is to store more water to meet all the demand, but the problem is that the more water there is in the reservoir, the less will reach the marshes.”

Aznalcóllar was the scene of an environmental disaster in 1998 when the dam of the mine’s settling basin broke. Now it wants to open again, posing an additional threat to the park, like the project to dredge the river so that bigger ships and cruise liners could sail up the Guadalquivir to the port in Seville.

Lynx and Mozart

The consequences would be dire for many species which breed here, such as prawns and anchovies, which feed from the sediment and are then fished in the gulf of Cadiz. It would also increase salinity, which would be very damaging for the rice fields.

“Nobody has taken into account the fact that these ships can’t manouevre freely along a river with bends, so it would have to be modified to make a type of straight channel, and that would destroy the surroundings. And anyway, we already have ports in Cadiz, Huelva, Algeciras and Malaga,” says Juanjo.

And the final straw, which has put ecologists on the warpath, is that the Gas Natural company wants to create a gas store below Doñana, an area which is classified as a National and Natural Park, a Unesco Heritage Site, a Biosphere Reserve, an internationally important Ramsar wetland, and part of the Nature Network 2000. This should mean that it cannot be touched, and not a place in which gas can be stored. “It seems we never learn,” complains Juanjo, who seems to agree with something else that was said by Miguel Delibes, who is an expert on the lynx, to illustrate the importance of things: “If a lynx becomes extinct, it is as if Mozart has died. Nobody ever dies from a lack of Mozart, but...”

It is like comparing Doñana with the Prado museum. Neither is vital for existence, but they both have an incalculable intangible value.

Doñana owes its name to Doña Ana de Silva y Mendoza, the daughter of the princess of Éboli and wife of the duke of Medina Sidonia, one of its most illustrious residents. However, it owes an even greater debt to José Antonio Valverde, a Spanish zoologist who succeeded in convincing the authorities of the importance of preserving this area, instead of using it to plant rice or eucalyptus trees. When this does not happen, as in the case of Matalascañas, the buildings encroach upon the land. This scientist’s intervention was a determining factor in Doñana being declared a National Park in 1969 and a World Heritage Site in 1994.

Unesco sent two missions to Doñana, in 2011 and 2015, to ask Spain to protect the aquifer and the estuary, and to guarantee that the Guadalquivir would not be dredged. More recently the organisation has made it clear to the Spanish government that it should do this before December 1st if it does not want to become the first member state of the European Union to have a World Heritage Site declared “in danger”.

Shorter springs

At the same time, the European Commission has opened two cases against Spain for bad management of the water and putting the park in danger from dredging, and is threatening to take it to the European Court of Justice.

The WWF is so unhappy at the situation that it organised a workshop with water experts, who concluded that the state of preservation of Doñana “is worse than shown in the Administration’s planning documents.” It also warns of the need to declare the aquifer “at risk” and to state clearer conservation objectives.

These are the top priorities, but there are also others, such as closing down the illegal wells and farms, controlling the use of water, building and maintaining measuring stations to monitor how much water enters and leaves the marshes, improving the treatment of water which is released onto Doñana and reducing contamination caused by agriculture.

Also, as Juanjo Carmona points out, it would be a big mistake to see that a week of rain has filled the marshes with water and think that the problem is over.“Doñana is drying up, even though it may not look like it,” he insists.

The solution is not for the birds to seek water in the rice fields and fish farms. “We are grateful for the support of their managers, but that isn’t the model we need to follow,” he explains.

JuanJo lives in the park, in Hinojos, beside the marshes, and sees the threats to Doñana from close at hand. That is why he knows well that the problem does not lie on the surface, but with the water which flows from the subsoil and which dries up earlier every spring, leaving too little time for many of the baby birds which are born here to grow.

Doñana is currently home to four varieties of endangered birds: the marbled teal, the white-headed duck - two of the most emblematic anatidae in Spanish fauna - the Spanish imperial eagle and Audouin’s gull.