Drought and heatwaves: Spain’s Donana wetland is shrinking putting wildlife and crops at risk

Drought and heatwaves: Spain’s Donana wetland is shrinking putting wildlife and crops at risk

Spain's Donana wetland has been a rich farming area for decades and a wildlife haven for centuries.

But climate change is drying it out and has set regional and national authorities on a collision course over how to safeguard its future.

Scientists, meanwhile, say the water needs of the farmers who grow thousands of tonnes of red berries per year are making the problem worse.

What is happening in Donana national park?

The Donana national park lies atop a 2,700-square km underground water reserve, one of the largest of its kind in Europe and an area almost twice the size of London.

Its beautiful lagoons are being depleted by a long drought and hotter weather, and they are surrounded by a sea of greenhouses and a complex system of pipes that takes water from in some cases illegally drilled wells.

A colt lies on the ground at Donana National Park, where drought has reduced water levels. - MARCELO DEL POZO/Reuters

Andalusia's conservative regional government plans an amnesty that would legalise additional irrigation around Donana, prompting an outcry from environmentalists and - with regional and local elections due this month - a pledge from the Socialist-led national government to protect the park.

The region, and more specifically the province of Huelva, where the park is located, produces 97 per cent of Spain's red fruits and is the world's largest exporter of strawberries.

Farmers disagree over water plans

Farmers are divided over the regional plan.

One group in favour says it only wants permission to irrigate with surface water, without jeopardising the underground reserves.

"There is enough surface water to irrigate all the hectares in the area, some of which are using groundwater," their spokesman Julio Diaz told Reuters.

A drone picture shows strawberry greenhouses and water pounds surrounding the Donana National Park area. - GUILLERMO MARTINEZ/REUTERS

But the central government says that's not true, and scientists say water extraction, both legal and illegal, is affecting the park's biodiversity.

The reserve also boasts marshlands, scrub woodland and beaches and is home to deer, badgers and endangered species including the Spanish imperial eagle and the Iberian lynx.

"The lagoons directly depend on the aquifer. If the lagoons are disappearing, it is because the aquifer is diminishing," said Eloy Revilla, head of the Donana Biological Station, calling for policies to reduce dependence on water in these areas because they are not going to be sustainable.

Drought and illegally harvested water are causing problems

Last year, Europe experienced its hottest summer on record, compounded by several extreme events including intense heatwaves, drought conditions and extensive wildfires, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service, and many scientists say droughts are becoming more frequent and water more scarce.

As the prolonged drought has left the Guadalquivir River basin's reservoirs at a quarter of capacity, water management authorities last month reduced the amount of water available for legal irrigation.

Strawberry pickers work at a greenhouse near the Donana National Park. - MARCELO DEL POZO/Reuters

That forced those Donana farmers who use legally-extracted water to kill part of their crops to save the rest, and they are not too happy about the regional plan to amnesty hundreds of illegally-watered hectares.

WWF ecologists estimate that 1,900 hectares of illegal crops in Donana could be legalised.

"Those who have been cultivating illegally for 15 years are going to be rewarded with surface water so they can irrigate on demand," said Manuel Delgado, spokesman for Puerta Donana farmers association, standing in one of the greenhouses that grow 50 tonnes of berries per hectare.