Spain’s failure to protect Doñana World Heritage site warrants UNESCO in danger listing

Posted on 01 December 2016

Today is the deadline set by UNESCO for Spain to address threats to Doñana National Park.
A Spanish wetland stopover for six million migratory birds is poised to become the first European Union site placed on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger.
Today is the deadline set by UNESCO for Spain to address threats to Doñana National Park in order to keep the site off the in danger list.
According to a WWF assessment, the country’s government has failed to cancel the destructive dredging of the Guadalquivir River as requested by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. The committee urged the Spain to cancel the project and not to permit any future plans to deepen the river.

The Spanish government also has not addressed any of the other major industrial threats facing the World Heritage site, including unsustainable and illegal agricultural water use, mining and natural gas operations. The regional government of Andalusia, where Doñana is located, fared only moderately better in the WWF analysis.
“For too long, authorities in Spain have ignored science, disregarded international treaty obligations, disobeyed UNESCO decisions, defied EU regulations, and resisted public opinion,” said Juan Carlos del Olmo, CEO of WWF-Spain.
“The Spanish government has had plenty of time to act; now its time is up. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee would be justified in inscribing Doñana on the List of World Heritage in Danger,” he said.
The cumulative impacts of harmful industrial activities have decreased water flow reaching the wetland to fewer than 20 per cent of natural levels. As a result, some of the site’s shallow lagoons have been lost, along with 80 per cent of its marshes.
WWF estimates that more than 1,000 unauthorized wells, 1,700 suspicious irrigation ponds, and 3,000 hectares of illegal farms are stealing Doñana’s water. In addition to drying out, the wetland is becoming increasingly polluted and infested with invasive species of plants and fish. Populations of rare birds and other animals are declining as a consequence.
WWF is also alarmed at plans for a Mexican company to reopen a nearby mine that caused an environmental disaster in 1998. The accident killed 30,000 kilograms of fish, and cost €380 million to clean.
UNESCO’s position is that oil, gas and mining exploration and exploitation are incompatible with World Heritage status, yet Spain continues to pursue perilous gas and mining projects in and near the site.
The 21-member World Heritage Committee will determine Doñana’s fate at its next meeting, scheduled for July 2017.
“The committee needs to hold Spain accountable for mismanaging our shared natural heritage, and set Doñana on a corrective course,” del Olmo said. “By addressing threats and reversing damage, it is possible for Doñana to preserve its precious wildlife, while also supporting sustainable fisheries, ecotourism and agriculture that are essential for the local economy.”
Doñana is one of Europe’s few outstanding wetlands, and the continent’s most important location for migratory birds. The site harbours over 4,000 types of plants and animals, including threatened birds and the world’s rarest feline species, the Iberian lynx. In addition to its environmental value, the park provides for the wellbeing of 200,000 nearby residents, with jobs from fishing, farming, research and ecotourism.
The park is protected by all major international conservation designations, including Ramsar Wetland Convention, EU Natura 2000, UNESCO Biosphere and World Heritage. WWF has been involved in the Doñana area for over 50 years, helping transform the wetland into the first biological reserve in Spain.
Scorecard summary
Doñana Marsh
© Diego Lopez / WWF
The Doñana wetland is a World Heriage site and EU Natura 2000 site.
© Andoni Canela/WWF