News Release

A World Heritage Site in danger: more than half of lagoons in Doñana have disappeared

The Doñana Participation Council meets to analyse the proposed law that aims to extend legal irrigation in the Doñana region. Spain is sentenced by the Court of Justice of the European Union for failing to fulfil its legal obligations towards the World

Business Announcement

Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)

Eloy Revilla, director de la Estación Biológica de Doñana – CSIC, has participated at the extraordinary plenary session of the Doñana Participation Council to analyse the proposed law presented in the Andalusian Parliament, that aims to regulate irrigation areas in Doñana, and its repercussions on the conservation status of the Doñana aquifer on which numerous species and habitats listed as priorities by Andalusian, Spanish and EU legislation depend.

In his intervention, Eloy Revilla has begun by recalling that “Spain is sentenced by the Court of Justice of the European Union for failing to fulfil its legal obligations under the Water Framework Directive and the Habitats Directive, by not taking into account the illegal water abstractions for cultivation nor the water abstraction for urban supply in the estimation of total groundwater abstractions in the Doñana region, as well as by failing to provide any measure to prevent the alteration caused by groundwater abstractions to the habitat types listed as priority habitats.

Effects of the loss of habitats classified as temporary lagoons on biodiversity

During his speech, the director has presented some of the data generated by the scientific work of the Doñana Biological Station, which are yielding devasting results in relation to the state of the lagoons and other habitats and also to the biodiversity that depends on them.

In the last study published in the journal Science of The Total Environment, data shows that the deterioration of the Doñana lagoon system is widespread. Fifty-nine percent of the surveyed lagoons have not been flooded since at least 2013. The observed changes are significantly related to temperature and precipitation each year, as well as to the extent of cultivated areas, the urbanized surface of Matalascañas, the distance to the urbanisation pumping stations and the operability of the golf course. With these analyses, we can see the effect of human variables related to water consumption once the effect of climatic variables has been controlled for: 80% of the lagoons had a negative anomaly on the date of drying up, and 84% in the surface flooded, i.e. lagoons have worsened more than expected due to rainfall and temperature alone.

 “In Mediterranean systems, droughts are recurrent, but when the succession of years withouth flooding episodes exceeds the average recurrence time, the vegetation of the lagoons disappears and thus the habitats listed in the Habitat Directive are lost”, has explained. This is what happened with the nineteen percent of the 267 lagoons sampled have been completely lost as they are now totally invaded by terrestrial vegetation. In addition, another 19% of the lagoons have more than 50% of their basin invaded by scrubland and pine trees. Only 10% are in good condition, mainly located in La Vera area.

The three lagoons that functioned as permanent ones have lost its permanency. The lagoons “Sopetón” and “La Dulce”, which only dried up occasionally, now dry out frequently. The situation in Santa Olalla lagoon was extreme in the summer of 2022, when it dried up completely. “This lagoon also dried up partially in 1983 and 1995, on both occasions after four successive years of drought. We are currently also in a dry period, but Santa Olalla is showing minimum values of its flooded surface area since 2012, despite the fact that both 2010 and 2011 were rainy years”, says Revilla.

This situaton is affecting the unique fauna and vegetation of Doñana. For example, as the flooding period for all amphibians has shortened, Amphibians have lost a large number of their breeding sites. According to data, amphibian species richness has been reduced from an average of 4.3 species/km2 in 2003 to 2.5 species/km2 in 2021. The decline of the two freshwater turtles species, native to the Iberian Peninsula and included in European red lists is also worrying, as well as the situation of dragonflies and damselflies. For instance, in 1959, 43 species have been described, but only 26 species have been detected in the last decade, with solely 12 species observed in 2022. Doñana conserves endangered fish species, such as the tusk, the salinette, or the European eel. However, for example, the total drying up of Santa Olalla in 2022 has meant the death of the eels remaining in this last permanent lagoon. And this critical situation is not only affecting animal groups. It is also having negative effects for the conservation of aquatic plants, mainly associated with long hydroperiod lagoons and some of which with restricted distributions and threatened.

In addition to the temporary lagoons, there are other priority habitat types whose conservation depends directly on an aquifer in good condition, such as heathlands. Associated with the decline and loss of the black forest within the Natural Area, numerous trees are being defoliated and dying, including multi-centenary cork oaks, which is a good indicator of the exceptional nature of the current situation. Since their last survey in 2009/2010, 8.3% have died, while a further 10.7% are in very poor condition, with a generalised tendency towards defoliation.

The Proposed Law

Climate change is changing rainfall patterns, changes that will intensify in the future and indicate a clear decrease in water availability. On the other hand, the demand for water in the Doñana region has continued to increase. For example, irrigation in the crown of the forest increased from 2162 ha in 2004 to 3543 ha in 2014 (an increase of more than 30%), and the area occupied today is even greater.

In relation to the proposed law presented in the Andalusian Parliament, Eloy Revilla wanted to give a clear position: “The current exploitation of the aquifer is not sustainable. This means that more water resource is being used than is being regenerated annually through recharge by precipitation, which is variable and decreasing, depleting this natural resource”.

In addition, he affirmed that the uncontrolled proliferation of irrigated crops without the corresponding authorisations shows the unsustainability caused by a “clear failure in governance” by appropriate administrations. According to him, it shows a clear lack of political willpower to solve the problem. “This executive inaction is what has led us to the unsustainable critical point reached in Doñana's conservation status.”

According to the director of the Doñana Biological Station, the additional need to provide water to farms without concessions, as proposed in the new law, makes it even more difficult to find an urgent solution to the problem. “The current situation in Doñana is critical and does not allow to wait another decade for decisions to be taken to adjust water demand to availability”, he said. “If this was done, we would be imposing, against current legislation, the complete loss of the temporary lagoon systems and other habitats dependent on the aquifer. In addition, if we do not act urgently, the depletion of the resource will mean that legal farms will have irrigation problems, as is already happening in this 2022-2023 campaign, putting at risk the economic activity that depends on the aquifer as a whole.

The problem we face is very complex, as will be its solution. “The creation of false expectations, which we know beforehand cannot be met, only adds complexity to the problem. A childish dialectic of good guys and bad guys is used, which only seeks confronting different parts of society against each other”, he criticized.  “It is important to remember that, to be economically, socially and environmentally sustainable, human activities, including economic activities, need a predictable and well-preserved environment.

Proposals to stop the deterioration of Doñana

To conclude his speech, the director of the Doñana Biological Station offered some guidelines to prevent further degradation of the World Heritage Site.

He proposes to urgently reduce the total amount of water abstracted from the aquifer to levels that will allow starting recovery. Only then, its exploitation can be sustainable in the short, medium and long term. He also proposes to update the system for assessing the state of the Doñana aquifer and to carry out annual assessments of the availability of water in the aquifer to define the maximum quantities that can be extracted from it. 

Eloy Revilla also believes it is necessary to urgently re-establish governance in the exploitation and management of water and land in Doñana and its region so that they are within the current legality and to address the vulnerability of legal farmers in the face of the uncertainty created by the proposed law, the loss of brand value of their products and the unfair competition from illegal producers and the uncertainty for the future.

Moreover, he calls on a multilateral working commission titled “Doñana 2030” to be started up urgently, as was approved by the former Participation Council, to make rapid and coordinated progress in improving the governance and conservation of Doñana and its region, allowing the critical situation of the aquifer to be addressed, as well as other important problems of Doñana such as water pollution or the intense overgrazing.

He also proposes to intensify the monitoring of natural systems and species affected by the profound changes that are occurring due to overexploitation of resources and climate change, as well as to carry out a socio-economic analysis in order to design the appropriate policies to develop sustainable agriculture in the region and give incentives for diversification of economic activity.

 “The future of Doñana and its region depends on our decisions, which, I have to remind you, is not only a local or regional value, but a universal heritage site of all humanity. You have to choose how you want to go down in history,” he concluded.

CSIC Andalucía Comunicación/CSIC Comunicación

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