Illegal water use dries out key Spanish lagoon

The largest permanent lagoon in drought-hit southern Spain's Doñana natural park, home of one of Europe's largest wetlands, has completely dried out for the second summer in a row.

Illegal water use dries out key Spanish lagoon
The cracked dry bottom of the Lucio del Lobo pool, at the Donana National Park in Aznalcaraz, southern Spain. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP)

A huge patch of cracked white earth has replaced the waters of the Santa Olalla lagoon, which usually houses abundant aquatic life and huge colonies of migrating birds.

The lagoon, which once covered around 45 hectares (110 acres), has been shrinking in recent years but this is the first time that it has dried out for two consecutive years, according to the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC).

Scientists blame the lagoon’s disappearance on a prolonged drought combined with the overexploitation of aquifers for farming and tourism.

“Recent years have been very dry, which is not rare for a Mediterranean climate,” Carmen Diaz Paniagua, a researcher at the Doñana Biological Station, told AFP.

Most lagoons in the reserve are temporary, filling with rainwater in winter and then drying out in the summer but a few contain water year-round, providing an important refuge for animal life.

“The real problem is the mismanagement of the aquifers. We don’t even know how much water is being extracted because there are many illegal wells,” she added.

READ ALSO: Where in Spain are there currently water restrictions?

The Doñana national park is surrounded by a sea of greenhouses and the Matalascanas resort town is located less than a kilometre from the northernmost lagoons of the reserve.

“This is not a natural thing happening only because of climate change. It can be reversed, if we can reduce the water extractions the lagoon could resist,” said Diaz Paniaga.

Water use restrictions are in place on other parts of Spain but that is not the case in towns near Doñana where beaches still operate showers, she added.

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

But at the Santa Olalla lagoon where wild horses once drank water surrounded by storks and flamingos, they now graze alone on the few tufts of grass they find growing from the cracked earth.

READ ALSO: Spanish government approves €2 billion funding package to fight drought effects 

Despite warnings from UNESCO and the European Commission, the conservative regional government of Andalusia where Doñana is located is pushing to extend irrigation rights near the park.

A draft law currently making its way through the regional parliament would regularise hundreds of hectares of berry farmland currently irrigated by illegal wells.

Defenders of the proposal argue it will aid those who unfairly missed out during a previous regularisation of farms in the area put in place in 2014 under a Socialist government.

“The water management policy is really not conducive to the conservation of Doñana’s lagoons,” said Diaz Paniagua.

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Tenerife to call drought emergency as Spain struggles with water shortages

Following similar announcements made by Andalusian and Catalan authorities, the Canary island of Tenerife faces water shortages this summer due to one of its “driest winters in recent history”.

Tenerife to call drought emergency as Spain struggles with water shortages

The Cabildo government of Tenerife will declare a “hydraulic emergency” on the island on Friday March 1st after a plenary session that looks certain to have the support of all political parties.

This comes after technical reports that point to an extreme and long-lasting drought in the midland areas of Tenerife and a critical risk of water shortages in the coming months and years. 

Tenerife is one of the greener Canary Islands, especially its northern half, but a severe lack of rain during its usually wetter winter months are leading authorities to take action soon in order to guarantee the water supply during the drier and longer lasting summer. 

This January was the hottest in Tenerife in 60 years, 20.9C on average.

Rainfall has decreased during all seasons in Tenerife by between 15 and 40 percent and water evaporation has increased by between 10 and 25 percent in the midlands largely used for agriculture. 

This drier and hotter climate largely explained why wildfires destroyed huge parts of Tenerife’s dense forested areas in August of 2023, the worst fires in forty years.

“We’re facing one of the driest winters in recent history and ensuring the water supply for citizens and for Tenerife’s countryside is an essential issue that cannot have political preferences,” Cabildo president Rosa Dávila told the press. 

Vice president Lope Afonso also warned that “the drought will have serious consequences for the agricultural sector”, as did the general secretary of the Canary Islands’ Association of Farmers, who lamented that at this rate “we will reach the summer without water.”

Increasing the capacity of water treatment and desalination plants have been suggested as methods to improve the supply of water for farmers and consumers. 

Tenerife, a mountainous island that’s home to Spain’s highest peak El Teide, has no rivers and very few dams, relying on underground water for 80 percent of its supply.

Just under a million people live on the densely populated island which received a record 14.1 million holidaymakers in 2023.

The biggest of the Canary Islands will therefore soon follow in the steps of Catalonia, where a drought emergency was declared in Barcelona on February 1st, increasing the level of already existing water restrictions in the region. 

In the southern region of Andalusia, big cities such as Málaga, Seville and Córdoba will have drought-related restrictions to water usage over the summer months unless there are “at least 30 days of rain in a row” beforehand, their president warned in January.

Around 35 percent of Spain is on drought alert or emergency due to a lack of water supplies, with the Valencia region and Murcia also facing increased drought risks this summer.