One of Spain’s largest and most iconic lakes, and part of a Unesco World Heritage Site, has officially dried up. The lake has run dry principally because of the current drought, but the climatological conditions also allowed researchers to capture on camera the effects of tourism on the protected natural site, whose heritage status is now also threatened.
Lake Santa Olalla is the aquatic gem of Doñana National Park, with 130,000 hectares of marshes, dunes, forests, and cultivated rice fields that is also a Unesco World Heritage Site as well as an EU-protected biosphere. Ecologically, it’s a uniquely diverse and well-placed space, an oasis for man and beast in one of Europe’s most arid regions. The ever-rarer Iberian lynx and Marismeño horse inhabit it year-round and practically every species of European bird passes through it as part of their migration patterns—famous flocks of greater flamingos, for example, as well as species that migrate from northern Europe. According to the World Wildlife Fund, some 6 million birds representing some 300 species make the area their temporary home throughout the year. The marshes are also used for growing rice, and the rice paddies provide a habitat for a variety of species as well.
Within this ecosystem, Santa Olalla is the park’s largest permanent lake, meaning it does not usually dry up seasonally, as other areas do, though this is not the first time in recent memory that it has lost all its water. During droughts in 1983 and 1999, the lake went dry. Researchers have blamed the previous dry-outs on overexploitation of its aquifer. This year, though, the Doñana Biological Station captured evidence of the effects of tourism on the lake on camera, the centre announced in a September 5th press release.
The aquifer that feeds the lake provides water to nearby Matalascañas, a hotel-lined beach inundated by tourists in summer. At the beginning of August, the lake still had water, but had dried up completely by the end of the month. Through cameras sited on the lake, researchers observed water bubbling up through the cracks on September 1st. The weather hadn’t changed significantly, but “operación retorno,” the Spanish designation for the massive flux of vacationers returning back home, was well underway.
“On August 31, Santa Olalla was dry, parched, and cracked, reduced to a tiny puddle of water and mud. Surprisingly, on September 1, after many people had already returned to their homes, we observed some of the springs sprouting from which the largest permanent lagoon in Doñana is nourished,” the press release stated.
“The continuous exploitation of the aquifer for intensive agriculture and human consumption—together with the dry years like this one—means that not only are the Doñana’s temporary lakes disappearing, but its permanent ones are also under threat,” the Doñana Biological Station said, explaining the now chronically drier conditions in the park that reached extremes this summer.
The European Court of Justice coincided with this observation last year in a sentence that ruled Spain had failed to meet its obligations to protect the designated bio reserve because it had not accounted for “illegal water extraction and the water destined for supplying urban areas” in its management of the park. The ruling followed nine years after Unesco had warned that the park risked losing its heritage site designation due to ecological degradation from the illegal exploitation of aquifers. Despite the repeated warnings, Andalucía’s new Right and centre-right coalition government, including the centre-right Partido Popular and the conservative party VOX, granted amnesty to 1,460 hectares of illegal farms and wells, to “safeguard historic rights and a traditional activity [practiced] since time immemorial.”
A moratorium had been placed on new farms and wells in 2014 and the amnesty was granted as the region anticipated elections.
But at least Spain’s strawberry industry—it’s the largest exporter of strawberries in the world and 90% of the berries are produced in the Huelva region around Doñana National Park—emerged only in the 1980s and functions according to modern principles. The berries are grown in long plastic tubes of hothouses and harvested by a mass of tens of thousands of seasonal workers brought in from Eastern Europe and Africa.
Despite this year’s drought, which limited the traditional rice plantations that are part of the park’s ecosystem to one-third of their usual levels, the strawberry industry suffered little. The Asociación de Productores y Exportadores de la Fresa de Huelva (the Huelva association of strawberry producers and exporters) told Andalucia Información that the 2021-22 season had closed out with only a 4% smaller harvest than the year before.
But some strawberry farmers think the situation is getting critical.
“You have to start with the water and not the land,” one strawberry farmer told the Guardian in 2021 when regulating irregular farms was under debate. “If you hand out the land, then everyone’s competing with each other, the aquifer’s suffering, and awful things happen. We can’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. But that’s what they’re trying to do and it’s bad for everyone—bad for the park and the farmers.”
For the coming season, berry farmers are anticipating a somewhat smaller crop for the coming season, due to lack of water. Without a serious injection of rain and renewed aquifers, all the area’s usual activities, whether traditional or modern, whether farming or bird watching, will suffer.
Bridget Ryder is Spain-based writer. She has written on politics, environment, and culture for American and international publications. She holds degrees in Spanish and Catholic Studies.