The Doñana irrigation plan compromises its sustainability

The Doñana national park it has become one of the most important wetlands on the European continent thanks to its strategic location and the great diversity of plant and animal species it possesses. Despite this, it has been subjected to various environmental conflicts for decades: it has suffered fires, spills and numerous alterations.

Now, the focus is on its aquifers after the approval of a new and controversial regulation of irrigation by the Andalusian Parliament that will amnesty more than 1,400 hectares of illegal crops despite the rejection of the opposition, environmentalists and international organizations given the risk it poses for the future of the Park and the agriculture of Huelva.

Hidden under the surface of dunes and pine forests, the aquifers are responsible for offering the fresh water needed to maintain the ecosystem of the entire area through the lagoons that populate the entire wetland. In total, Doñana has five underground water masses or pools with different hydrological characteristics, although they are managed jointly.

But at the gates of the Park, the Huelva populations have been growing thanks to the cultivation of red fruits, such as strawberries, which require a large amount of irrigation. As a result of this activity, thousands of wells have been created, many of them illegally, which drink from groundwater without control, reducing them little by little to the alarm of experts and environmentalists.

“We are pushing the ecological balance to the limit”

“It’s overexploited, It has been in a bad state for many years“, tells the coordinator of the Doñana technical office of SEO/BirdLife, Carlos Davila. “This decrease in the aquifer has generated the loss of coastal or peridunal lagoons. Many have stopped filling up and others that were permanent never fill up anymore,” he explains.

For Davila, this will produce direct effects on biodiversity because “they are losing suitable ecological characteristics to house large species of birds and other animals in danger of extinction”. Without water, the flora and fauna associated with the wetland decreases. “We are pushing the ecological balance of Doñana to the limit”adds the ecologist.

Professor Miguel Rodríguez Rodríguez, from the External Geodynamics Area of ​​the Pablo de Olavide University (UPO), agrees on the risk posed by the disappearance of underground masses. “The Marismas, La Rocina and Almonte ponds are already at risk at a quantitative level. Since 2020 there has been a declaration of risk from the Ministry for Ecological Transition because they do not meet the levels,” he laments.

Drought, the “other pandemic”

Asked about a possible recovery of the lagoons that still persist, the UPO professor explains that the aquifers, which are located very close to the sandy surface and feed these masses of water, are “transmissive and permeable.” “When it rains, around 25% of the water infiltrates. Sand they recover quickly, but of course, it has to rain“, indicates.

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2022 is being the second driest hydrological year of this century. Since October, the rains in Spain were 35% lower than normal and the reservoirs are at 44% of their capacity. If we look at the south of the Peninsula, the Guadalquivir Basin, the largest in the Andalusian community, has been in an exceptional situation of drought since November. And the peridunal lagoons, which are precisely the ones that maintain the humidity of the soil and they provide the resistance of the natural environment against droughtsare at historical lows.

“We have come out of a pandemic to enter another hydrological one”, says Rodríguez, noting that the last 10 years in Andalusia have been equal to or lower than average rainfall. “If the water levels are gradually falling, the exploitation of irrigation is imposed, there are surveys… it does not improve the situation. There are not enough water resources, protection measures must be adopted.”

The ‘Strawberry Plan’, then and now

The Andalusian Government tried to solve the problem of overexploitation with the 2014 Doñana Forest Crown Special Plan, also known as the ‘Strawberry Plan’. This project, agreed between the Board, the farmers and the different administrations, established the regularization of farms that were under irrigation prior to 2004 and that had not transformed forest areas into agricultural areas without authorization, and the obligation to eliminate the surface irrigated without permits.

But now, the Andalusian Parliament has carried out the urgent processing of the project of a new regulation in which numerous of these plantations will be granted amnesty by postponing the date to 2014. The text, proposed by PP, Cs and Vox, will be definitively approved between April and May.

The Andalusian Parliament approves the new regulation of irrigation in Doñana with the abstention of the PSOE

The measure, however, is not without controversy. You have received a rejection We can and the non-attached deputies of Forward Andalusiathe groups environmentalists and the Guadalquivir Hydrographic Confederation (CHG)as well as those farmers who meet the legal requirements of the original ‘Strawberry Plan’.

The three parties that have presented the initiative defend that it will not affect the Doñana National Park and assure that only 800 hectares of irrigated land will be legalized, trying to solve a problem that has been entrenched for years for farmers in Huelva County. From the environmental associations, on the other hand, they disagree and denounce that amnesty would be granted to between 1,400 and 1,900 hectares.

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According to the coordinator of WWF water and agriculture projects, Felipe Fuentelsaz, legalization “will mean an increase in water consumption of ebetween seven and nine cubic hectometers per yearwhich would have a dramatic effect on the aquifer.”

“We are seeing that it is said that this is not in Doñana, that [el área de ejecución del plan] is 30 km from the Park, but it is a ecologically ignorant statement“, Davila also criticizes. “If you take water from a river in Córdoba, they will notice it in the flow in Seville. This is the same but underground.”

The polarization of the debate

And not only that, all environmental groups warn of the repercussions for the image of Spain, since the plan collides with international conventions, such as Ramsar, and with the criteria of the own European Comissionwhich a week ago threatened to take legal action and recalled that it contravenes a ruling issued by the European Court of Justice (CJEU) for the lack of protection of the wetland.

“All this is in exchange for listening to a few farmers who are illegal,” they insist from SEO / BirdLife. However, they point out that it is important that the debate “don’t polarize”: “It is not a confrontation, they are not farmers against whom to conserve nature”.

It is not possible to demonize the berry farmers who do comply and have authorizations to do so

“You cannot demonize the berry farmers who do comply and have authorizations to do so,” continues Davila, assuring that many of these crop owners “do not see themselves represented at all.” “You cannot give immunity to those who do not have rights to land and water. You are playing dirty with the future“, Add.

From WWF They also speak of “unfair competition”. “This proposal represents a comparative offense for those legal farmers who are doing their job well and who are going to be harmed because they will have to share a scarce resource such as water and suffer unfair competition,” explained Fuentelsaz, at a press conference last Tuesday.

The CSIC researcher and director of the Doñana Biological Station, Eloy Revilla, does not consider regularization to be beneficial for legal crops either. “Everything has a cost in time and money, for farmers it has been an effort to comply with the law,” he tells

In his opinion, the new regulation open “a social problem” in which it is difficult to reach a consensus like the one that was already done in 2014. Likewise, he defends that beyond political decisions, legality and agreements must be complied with, “and Spain is not doing it”.

That, he points out, will have many consequences for the citizens, either by the costs of possible legal proceedings that they open from now on to reverse the plan, as for the “loss of the value of Doñana”which could reduce the demand for products from the south of Spain: “There will be no distinction between legal or illegal cultivation, they will all be the same. And it’s a shame, because gaining a brand image costs a lot.”

Fuentelsaz agrees. “The European Commission has been very clear, it has a deep concern. We are playing a millionaire fine that all Spaniards will pay for amnestying some people who do not have a legal use of water,” he assures TVE.

Closure of wells, less consumption and a possible transfer

Environmentalists are clear about the solution: close the more than 1,000 illegal wells, eliminate farms without permits and encourage consumption savings. They reject, yes, carry out a transfer of water from the Tinto-Odiel-Piedras basin, as proposed by the PSOE-A. The organizations assure that this only implies “bring more water to the same territorial disorder” and claim that it can generate “the call effect”. “It’s as if they said we can do whatever we want because we bring water with a tube,” says Davila.

“The transfer is a temporary solution, but it is not the final solution. It is better than nothing, but the problem is the planning of the territory“, says Professor Rodríguez, who recalls that Doñana is a complex issue with many actors involved who try to look after their interests. Although he affirms that “there is no ideal solution, because otherwise it would already be applied”, advocates “integrated management” adopted by technicians and experts to control agricultural demand and maintain balance.

Revilla, on the other hand, does not see the final solution in the transfer either. “With the drought there is also no surface water to irrigate. We have to consider what type of agriculture we are going to have and understand that there is no water for so much extensive cultivation”.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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