Drought takes last freshwater lagoon in Doñana


The last remaining wetland in Doñana National Park has been reduced to a puddle after a relentless drought in southern Spain.

Santa Olalla Lagoon was the largest body of freshwater at the famous reserve, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, and supported Greater Flamingos, White-headed Ducks and thousands of migratory birds.

Santa Olalla Lagoon is normally full of Greater Flamingos (Chris Scaife).

Carmen Díaz, researcher at the Doñana Biological Station, said: "It is assumed that there is no water at all in the entire park. I have seen the deterioration over two months. The birds were gathering, and the lagoon was full of flamingos, until suddenly they all disappeared.

"Everything that is strictly aquatic has died, including the eel, which is in danger of extinction, and other species of fish such as cornets and aquatic insects. Plants and amphibians may resist, but not for so long."

Spanish Imperial Eagle is among the suite of species affected by low rainfall (Helge Sorensen).

The national park is home to charismatic species such as Spanish Imperial Eagle and Iberian Lynx, both of which are known to suffer during periods of drought.

The lagoon has only dried up twice in modern times: in 1983 and again in 1995, after years of low rainfall. This time, illegal wells constructed to support intensive strawberry farming have worsened the crisis. The lagoon was identifed as 'overexploited' by the government in 2020.

Doñana received very little rainfall between September 2021 and the end of May, with only 282 mm measured, against a 40-year annual average of 540 mm.

Eloy Revilla, director of the Doñana Biological Station, said: "Doñana serves as a sentinel. First it passes through the most fragile areas, then into the marshlands where the harvests are already very poor. We humans will be next. Climate change makes less water available to us."

Santa Olalla has turned into a sticky, salty trap for birds, instead of a valuable refuge. A member of staff attempted to rescue a young Greater Flamingo but had to abort when he started sinking into the mud too. The lagoon's salinity was recently measured at just 12 millisiemens below that of sea water.

The water authority has closed 220 illegal wells since 2018 but it's rarely long before farmers build replacements, any fines being worth the profit from the strawberry harvest.

Meanwhile, the government in the region is expected to push for plans to increase irrigation for strawberries over 1,460 ha on the edge of the national park, despite criticism from the European Comission, UNESCO and a host of other bodies, scientists and even supermarkets. The plans are in breach of the a ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union in 2021, which condemed Spain for neglecting Doñana.