Climate Change Threatens Protected Spanish Wetlands

Doñana National Park, located in southwestern Spain, close to the Atlantic Ocean, is known as the “crown jewel” of the country.

It is a protected wetland home to many animals, including birds such as flamingos and hummingbirds.

Now, after a summer of record high temperatures and little rain, the marshes are dry, brown and smelly.

Most of the fish and birds are gone too.

Water bodies called Lagoons are in the center of the park. Most of them are drained and refilled throughout the year. Santa Olalla is the largest lagoon in the park. Traditionally, there is water all year round. It provides water to plants and animals that need it in the summer.

But this year, Santa Olalla dried up.

A dry marsh is seen in the Doñana nature park in southwestern Spain, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022. Agriculture and tourism had already drained the aquifer that fed Doñana. Then climate change hit Spain with record high temperatures and a prolonged drought this year. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Carmen Diaz is a biologist who studies the park. He showed an Associated Press reporter around and stepped into a muddy area with some water.

“Seeing this last water makes me think the whole park is dry,” he said.

The park has been home to hundreds of thousands of birds that visit for the winter. Many use it as a stopover during their migration from Africa to Northern Europe. Doñana is home to five species of threatened birds, including the Spanish imperial eagle. There is also one cultivation and a rescue center for the Iberian lynx, an endangered wild cat species.

Díaz is a government researcher at the Spanish National Research Council. He said the time to save the park was 20 years ago, but in his words, “nothing was done.”

“The environment always loses against the economy,” he said.

The park is where the Guadalquivir River meets the ocean. The area was once along an important transportation route for Spanish explorers who shipped silver back from colonies in Central and South America. Scientists and conservationists have studied the area for many years for its plant and animal life.

Among them is Carlos Davila. His research centers on the imperial eagle. He said 2022 was a “catastrophic year” for birds. Out of a group of eight matings, only two babies were born.

Raindrops fall on a blueberry plantation near Lucena del Puerto, southwest Spain, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022.  Agriculture and tourism had already drained the aquifer that fed the Doñana.  Then climate change hit Spain with record high temperatures and a prolonged drought this year.  (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Raindrops fall on a blueberry plantation near Lucena del Puerto, southwest Spain, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022. Agriculture and tourism had already drained the aquifer that fed the Doñana. Then climate change hit Spain with record high temperatures and a prolonged drought this year. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

When it rains, the area comes alive again. However, urban development along the Atlantic coast and farms elsewhere are putting pressure on wetlands. Conservatives protest for example, about the nearby town of Matalascañas. Once a quiet fishing village, the town is now a popular center for beach vacations.

But scientists and environmentalists say the city is demanding too much water from the Doñana. And the European Court of Justice ruled that the city had drained some of the park’s lagoons.

The town of Matalascanas is seen on the horizon surrounded by the Doñana national park in southwestern Spain, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022. Climate change has hit Spain this year with record high temperatures and prolonged drought.  (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

The town of Matalascanas is seen on the horizon surrounded by the Doñana national park in southwestern Spain, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022. Climate change has hit Spain this year with record high temperatures and prolonged drought. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Further afield, in an area called Huelva, traditional Spanish olive groves have been replaced by berry farms. Berries bring in more money than olives, but require more water to grow. The World Wildlife Fund says there are thousands of wells in the area that are extracting groundwater without permission. This means that water never enters wetlands.

Felipe Fuentelsaz is an agricultural expert at the World Wildlife Fund in Spain. He says Doñana National Park has a big problem with severe drought. But he said the park also suffered from poor oversight. This allowed the construction of illegal wells and other activities to divert water resources.

Although the government has tried to close some wells, farmers are pushing back. They say that they always have the right to use water in the area and only take what belongs to them.

Strawberries grow on a farm in Almonte, southwest Spain, Tuesday, October 18, 2022.  Farming and tourism had already drained the aquifer that fed the Doñana.  Then climate change hit Spain with record high temperatures and a prolonged drought this year.  (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Strawberries grow on a farm in Almonte, southwest Spain, Tuesday, October 18, 2022. Farming and tourism had already drained the aquifer that fed the Doñana. Then climate change hit Spain with record high temperatures and a prolonged drought this year. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

The Spanish government is considering projects that would send some water from rivers in other parts of the country to help bring life back to Doñana.

I’m Dan Friedell.

Dan Friedell adapted this story from an Associated Press report for VOA Learning English.

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