Drought and overexploitation dried up a lake in Spain’s Doñana National Park

Santa Olalla, the last permanent lagoon in the park, has disappeared under the pressure of drought, overexploitation, and illegal wells.

Doñana National Park (Parque Nacional y Natural de Doñana), located on the Atlantic coast of Huelva province in Andalusia in southwestern Spain, is a nature reserve characterised by its lagoons, fixed and mobile dunes, and marshlands. It was created by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) in 1964 and is currently managed by the Doñana Biological Station (EBD). The park has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1994 and is one of the most extensive wetlands in Europe, covering an area of 543 sq km (210 sq mi).

The desiccation of the Santa Olalla lagoon

The Santa Olalla lake is a shallow natural eutrophic lake and the largest permanent waterbody in Doñana National Park. Over the years, overconsumption and drought have taken their toll on this lake. Consequently, on Monday, September 5, 2022, experts from CSIC announced that the Santa Olalla lake had dried up and was reduced to a small puddle in the centre. This has happened before: it is the third time the lake has dried up in the 50 years since the Doñana Biological Station and CSIC began to record data on this natural space.

santa olalla lake, drought, overconsumption
Aerial view of the Santa Olalla lake in the Doñana National Park in September 2022 © EBD – CSIC

The lake suffers the consequences of overconsumption as the aquifer that feeds the wetlands has been continuously exploited for years due to intensive agriculture and extraction for human consumption. The water withdrawals of the nearby beach town of Matalascañas hit their peak during summer, coinciding with the tourist season. At the same time, human-made climate breakdown has heightened the risk of droughts in recent years. In Europe, the summer of 2022 was a season of extreme heat and droughts, particularly intense in the Iberian Peninsula, affecting the local natural spaces and ecosystems including the Doñana National Park.

“It’s been years since it rained normally. Doñana has had precipitation levels below average for ten consecutive years”, said Eloy Revilla, director of the Doñana-CSIC biological station. Mining pollution and marsh drainage have also contributed to the degradation of this national park’s water supply.

The environmental importance of Doñana National Park

The park is a refuge for European and African migratory birds and other wild animals, such as the Spanish red deer and the European badger, and is rich in flora.  The park’s importance is such that it was declared a “Wetland of International Importance” by RAMSAR in 1982 and a “Special protection area for birds” (Natura 2000 Network). In addition, the park is home to a multitude of protected animal species, including the Iberian lynx and the Spanish imperial eagle.

Local parliament voted to regularise illegal wells

In February 2022, right-wing MPs in Southern Spain ignored the protests of environmental groups, the Spanish government, the Eu, and Unesco as they voted to grant an amnesty to illegal strawberry farmers tapping water from the aquifer that feeds this wetland.

Despite the wetland’s ecological importance, the Andalucían regional parliament approved the proposal to regularise 1,461 hectares of land near the park. Because of this, farmers who’ve illegally sunk wells and built plantations on this land can now continue carrying out their harmful operations.

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