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Desertification of Spanish marshlands shows climate crisis has arrived

Desertification of Spanish marshlands shows climate crisis has arrived
Copyright euronews
Copyright euronews
By Hans von der Brelie
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Water shortages in the Doñana marshlands of southern Spain is bad news for both wildlife and rice growers


Flamingos dance in the last remaining water lagoons of Doñana, Europe’s famous paradise for birds in southern Spain. But the earth is heating up.

Wildlife guide Sergio Asián from the organisation Living Doñana is seeing fewer birds breeding, fewer species surviving. Biodiversity is under threat.

"The most important thing is that we are in the middle of the migration routes for birds," he says.

Rice fields turn dry

Doñana is also 37,000 hectares of rice fields. A sophisticated system of pumping stations channels water from the Guadalquivir river to the fields.

Each year the authorities allocate water to different users.

But there's a problem:

"These areas are rice field areas," Sergio shows us on the map. "In the last three years not too much fresh water is coming to the Atlantic Ocean from the reservoirs in the mountains. The salty water from the ocean comes closer. This year, the percentage of salt in one litre of irrigation water is around 3 grammes – and it’s too much for rice."

Dry heat has been hovering above José Daniel Carbonell's rice farm for three years. In 2022, the hydrological situation became critical. José and his colleagues received 70% less water. The rice farmers union, which José heads, decided to cultivate just 30% of their rice fields.

Farmers seek emergency aid

"This year, the water deficit is even worse," he says. "Therefore, it was decided to give us only 11% of the available water volume. And in the rice sector around Sevilla, it's been decided not to plant rice at all."

Spain launched an emergency request to the European Commission to step up support for farmers in need.

"This is clay soil that's dry and what it does is it creates small clods," explains José. "Which therefore prevents the cultivation of any cereal or horticultural crop. Here in the Guadalquivir marshlands, the only thing that can grow is rice – but only by flooding the area."

José invites us to his warehouse where rice from last year’s harvest is stored. The entire sector will be paralyzed. Bad news for the village of Isla Mayor – founded a century ago to colonise the marshlands with rice farmers.

"The situation is regrettable and possibly catastrophic for some farmers," says José.

Two-thirds of Spain is under threat of desertification. The climate crisis has begun.

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