In Spain, the question of water is boiling the electoral campaign

“Demagogy”, “lies”, “climate denial”… In Spain, the debate on water management electrifies the campaign for the local elections of May 28, jostled by a controversy over the future of the nature reserve of Doñana, threatened by intensive agriculture.

Dwindling water resources and ever-increasing irrigation needs: the country is facing “an untenable situation”, notes Felipe Fuentelsaz, WWF Spain manager for Doñana Park, a symbol of water scarcity in Spain.

This emblematic reserve of Andalusia (south), mixing dunes, forests and lagoons, once hosted huge colonies of birds coming to rest on their journey between Europe and Africa. Today, it is almost a desert, where storks and flamingos are rare.

Image taken at Doñana Park, a symbol of water scarcity in Spain, on May 11, 2023 (AFP – CRISTINA QUICLER)

“Doñana is in critical condition (…) For two years, it has hardly rained. However, farmers continue to draw huge quantities of water from groundwater”, sighs Felipe Fuentelsaz, pointing to the dusty plains now the majority within the reserve.

According to the Spanish Higher Scientific Research Council (CSIC), 59% of the lagoons in this area classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site are now dry. And the problem could get worse, until it becomes irreversible.

Despite warnings, the People’s Party (PP, right), in power in the region, tabled a bill in early March, supported by the far right, aimed at regularizing illegal cultivation of red fruits around the park.

According to the WWF, it could lead to the legalization of 1,500 hectares of crops, mostly irrigated by clandestine wells, in the province of Huelva, the leading strawberry exporting region in Europe.

– “Grab voices” –

This text responds to a “legitimate request” from farmers to “put an end to an injustice”, defends Manuel Andrés Gonzalez, PP deputy for Huelva.

In 2014, the region, then led by the socialists, had regularized 9,000 hectares in order to restore order in the cultivation of strawberries, after years of anarchic boom. But “hundreds of farmers” had been “left out”, insists the parliamentarian.

Image taken at Doñana Park, a symbol of water scarcity in Spain, on May 11, 2023 (AFP - CRISTINA QUICLER)
Image taken at Doñana Park, a symbol of water scarcity in Spain, on May 11, 2023 (AFP – CRISTINA QUICLER)

Arguments rejected by Rocio del Mar Castellano, various left mayor of Almonte, who considers the project “dangerous”.

“There is no more water, how can you claim to increase the irrigated land? The PP sells dreams to grab votes!”, Plagues the elected representative of this municipality located in the heart of the Doñana park.

As the municipal and regional elections of May 28 approach, the first electoral round before the legislative elections at the end of the year, the tension has risen a notch on this subject between the socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and the national leader of the PP. , Alberto Nuñez Feijóo.

“We do not touch Doñana, it is the heritage of the Spaniards”, hammered Mr. Sánchez, denouncing the “climate denialism” of the right. A warning relayed by Brussels, which poses the risk of sanctions on Spain.

Doñana “does not belong to Sánchez”, replied the leader of the PP, who accuses the Prime Minister of maintaining the controversy to hide his inaction in terms of hydraulic policy.

In the event of a victory for the right in the national elections, “we will bring water where there is none”, he promised.

– “See reality” –

Faced with threats from Brussels, the PP said it was open to adjustments… without giving up on its project. “Pedro Sanchez attacks us for electoral purposes”, justifies Manuel Andrès Gonzalez, who assures that the elected socialists of Doñana “are far” from being all “opposed” to the text.

Image taken at Doñana Park, a symbol of water scarcity in Spain, on May 11, 2023 (AFP - CRISTINA QUICLER)
Image taken at Doñana Park, a symbol of water scarcity in Spain, on May 11, 2023 (AFP – CRISTINA QUICLER)

For Pablo Simon, a political scientist at Carlos III University in Madrid, Sanchez’s offensive on the climate issue is in fact not without ulterior motives: it allows him to “reposition himself on the axis that suits him , a right-left axis, on which he has more to gain than to lose,” he said.

But for environmentalists, it also reflects an awareness. In Doñana as elsewhere, “the impact of climate change is becoming palpable (…) Our water management model is showing its limits”, judge Julia Martinez, expert from the Foundation for a New Water Culture.

Faced with the historic drought affecting the country, the government announced last week an envelope of 1.4 billion euros to build infrastructure intended to desalinate seawater or reuse wastewater for irrigation.

In Spain, 80% of fresh water resources are in fact consumed by farmers, who export huge quantities of fruit and vegetables.

“Some refuse to see the reality. But we can no longer continue to be the vegetable garden of Europe, it’s irresponsible”, underlines Julia Martinez, who pleads for a “drastic change of policy”, with a sharp drop in surfaces irrigated, to avoid a “hydrological shock”.

A risk now taken seriously in Doñana. “You have to listen to the scientists” and “not to play with fire”, slice Rocio del Mar Castellano: “the cultivation of strawberries is important. But if the water disappears, we will not have strawberries at all”.

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