Bell tolls for Doñana: Amnesty for illegal farms would flout EU rules

Posted on March, 21 2023

On the eve of World Water Day, and as the United Nations kicks off its Water Conference in New York tomorrow, the ruling party in Andalusia, Spain is pushing through a new law that endangers the internationally protected Doñana wetland and would breach EU rules.
The legislation would decriminalise thousands of hectares of strawberry farms that illegally extract water, thus drying out this precious and unique ecosystem.

The law, tabled using an emergency procedure in the Andalusian Parliament ahead of local elections in May, would drastically expand the area of legal cultivation. It would also pardon farmers whose looting of groundwater to irrigate their illegal fields during several years has been driving the destruction of Doñana.

In a strong letter sent to the Ambassador Permanent Representative of Spain to the European Union yesterday, the Director General of DG Environment affirmed that the Commission was monitoring the situation and would consider taking all necessary measures, including bringing further action before the Court of Justice requesting the imposition of financial penalties, if the law is adopted in its current terms. The Commission asked the Ambassador to make sure that the law proposal will not have a detrimental impact on the integrity of the protected areas, and to accelerate the actions to control and close all the illegal abstractions that are currently affecting Doñana.

“The European Commission must not stand idly by while the Andalusian government is on the brink of flagrantly breaking both the EU Water Framework Directive and the EU Habitats Directive - again. The Commission must continue demanding compliance with the European Court of Justice ruling, including closure of all illegal farms and increased efforts to conserve Doñana,”said Andreas Baumüller, Head of Natural Resources at WWF European Policy Office.

In 2021, the European Court of Justice already condemned Spain for breaching EU rules due to excessive water extraction in Doñana. But the new law is a flagrant violation of the EU rules and could lead to further disastrous drying out of this vital wetland, threatening a wealth of wildlife from hundreds of thousands of migratory birds to protected habitats at European level. A healthy Doñana is also critical to the region’s water security, its multi-billion Euro legal strawberry industry, and its capacity to adapt to climate change.

“This dreadful law makes a complete mockery of the ruling of the European Court of Justice and the European Commission itself, since it rewards land grabbing and the looting of water resources. It is unjustifiable that for electoral reasons Doñana is endangered. The Andalucia region should withdraw this proposal and close all the illegal farms immediately” said WWF-Spain CEO Juan Carlos del Olmo. 

The scale of the crisis facing Doñana was highlighted in September 2022 when all of its freshwater lagoons dried up. While severe drought played a part, excessive water extraction is the primary cause. A new global survey released last week shows that citizens' worries about water shortages are on the rise in Europe and globally.
A group of Greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) in a marsh, at sunset, Coto Doñana National Park, Andalucia, Spain.
© Jorge SIERRA / WWF-Spain