Drying Doñana in danger of losing World Heritage status

Posted on September, 15 2016

Spain's most famous wetland is under threat from harmful industrial activities.
Europe’s historic Doñana National Park could be added to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger unless immediate action is taken against multiple threats to the wetland, according to a new analysis by WWF.
Doñana faces the prospect of drying out completely after years of poor management and water over extraction. The World Heritage site, located in southern Spain, supports the regional economy and provides habitats for as many as six million migratory birds each year, as well as for the endangered Iberian lynx year round.
The analysis, Saving Doñana: From Danger to Prosperity, produced for WWF by Dalberg Global Development Advisors, also details the looming threats of dredging, mining, and gas storage.
Harmful industrial activities, including intensive agriculture and river modifications, have decreased the water reaching the wetland by 80 per cent. An estimated 1,000 illegal wells and 3,000 hectares of illegal farms are also contributing to unsustainable water use and should be closed, the analysis finds. 
Despite Doñana being protected by several international agreements, including the World Heritage Convention, the Spanish government has failed to safeguard the site from harmful industrial activities that threaten its outstanding natural value, while lacking a water management plan that maximizes conservation of the wetland complex and estuary.
“Doñana is at a crossroads, either the Spanish government adheres to the international commitments it has made to safeguard this vital area that provides benefits to the entire world, or it allows it to be exploited to the point of no return. The situation is already critical and now we have the embarrassing prospect of an in danger listing for our most famous World Heritage site,” said WWF-Spain CEO Juan Carlos del Olmo.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, Doñana has lost over 80 per cent of its natural marshes. In recent years, illegal and unsustainable water use have severely impacted its natural value resulting in reduced biodiversity and dried out lagoons.
This damage also has affected the region’s ability to provide jobs and generate income, including for the vital berry industry. Seventy per cent of the strawberries produced in Spain, the fifth largest producer in the world, are from Doñana.

Despite Doñana’s significance and the fragile condition highlighted in the analysis, there is a proposal to further dredge the Guadalquivir River. Dredging would worsen existing damage to the park and estuary, and could trigger the site’s inscription on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger in June 2017. 
“Protecting Doñana is not just a matter of local or national concern, it is of international relevance. Doñana is among the most important wetlands in the world giving shelter to millions of birds and endangered species, it is the star of Europe’s protected areas,” said del Olmo.
WWF is calling for the cancellation of the dredging project and for Spain to ensure that Doñana’s water is managed correctly so that it can deliver sustainable socioeconomic benefits to the region.
“It’s not just biodiversity that’s threatened, but jobs that support local residents, and the strawberry industry, which generates €400 million annually. We need to secure Doñana to ensure the livelihoods of thousands of people,” del Olmo added.
Known as one of Europe’s greatest conservation areas, Doñana is home to over 4,000 species, including threatened birds and the world’s rarest feline species, the Iberian lynx. In addition to its environmental value, Doñana provides jobs for the region’s 200,000 inhabitants from fishing, farming, research and ecotourism.
Doñana is protected by almost every conservation designation, including national park, Ramsar site, Natura 2000 site, UNESCO Biosphere reserve, and World Heritage site. WWF has been involved in the park for over 50 years, purchasing more than 6,700 hectares of Coto Doñana in 1963 to save the site from destruction and to help transform the region into the first biological reserve of Spain.
Saving Doñana: From Danger to Prosperity by Dalberg
© WWF/Diego Lopez/Ender Ergun
Map of Doñana protected area complex
© WWF/Ender Ergun