ALMONTE – Wild urbanisation on Andalucia’s Atlantic coast threatens to end one of Europe’s most important wetlands: the Doñana National Park.
What was a previously inaccessible, completely wild, and natural area is today a summer destination. It has many high-rises, swimming pools, and tourist facilities similar to Benidorm. However, the accelerated urban planning, that began in Matalascañas in the 1970s, soon increased the consumption of water. This came from the nearest area: Doñana.
Random and many illegal water abstractions continue here. And, therefore, the ecosystem, which has been at risk for decades, is now in an extreme situation. The water from Doñana is used to provide drinking water to the population of the Matalascañas resort. However, it is also used to irrigate other areas such as golf courses.
Water as Achilles’ heel
Walking through the streets of Matalascañas, you will see tight rows of single-family homes, high-rise apartment buildings, luxury hotels, and beach bars. From April to mid-November, the place is overrun by people who come for the necessary relaxation. However, it is virtually extinct for the rest of the year. Of the approximately 1,500 inhabitants that Matalascañas has, there are easily 100,000 or more in the summer.
As a result, water has been the city’s main Achilles heel for years. Extracting it from the nearby wetland Doñana is easy. Especially in periods when the population is growing and consumer demand for water skyrockets.
The flip side of this story is that little by little, this tourist boom is drying up the lagoons of the Natural Park, vital to countless species of migratory birds and other fauna and flora. The lagoons closest to Matalascañas have already dried up.
Carmen Díaz, a researcher in the Wetland Ecology Department at the Doñana Biological Station (EBD-CSIC), explains to the Spanish newspaper El Español that the dune lagoons are the most important because they are the largest and hold water for the longest. However, these dune lagoons also threaten to dry up. She mentions the lagoon of Charco del Toro as an example.
Alternative water source much needed
And this problem is not new. In the late 1980s, a committee of international experts led by Briton Ted Hollis warned of the damage that Matalascañas’ sources would cause to the lagoons. The report suggested that the planned development with a capacity of about 32,000 inhabitants and a golf course could worsen the situation in Doñana. Not to mention the added risk that excessive extraction could eventually lead to saltwater infiltration into the wells and, by extension, the national park. As Hollis noted at the time, “Matalascañas can only continue if an alternative water source is sought.”
For Juanjo Carmona, attorney and Doñana coordinator at WWF, this report marks “a before and after.” However, accelerated urban planning continued in Matalascañas until what experts say was an “unsustainable” situation.
Water from Doñana for a golf course
Since the beginning of the development of Matalascañas, the coastal town has not stopped growing and has fuelled the region’s economic boom. And while scientific reports increasingly warned of the deterioration of Doñana, Matalascañas started new projects including a 60-hectare golf course.
Enrique Luis Santos, professor of physical geography at the University of Seville, points out that “the golf course became very famous because it was promoted as Spain’s first ecological golf course. But the course did not function well and has had financial problems from the start. Therefore, it was the intention to use wastewater to irrigate the golf course. However, according to Santos, which was well written but in practice, the use of water from Doñana was soon utilised.
The treatment plant that is supposed to treat the wastewater has been out of operation for many years. Therefore, since its closure in 2016, “the golf course has been irrigated with water from Doñana,” says Díaz. The newspaper El Español repeatedly contacted the municipality of Almonte, which includes Matalascañas, but received no response.
Stench from water treatment plant
The sewage treatment plant (WWTP) was put into operation around the year 2013. However, as local media reported that year, there were soon complaints from the owners of the houses next to the sports complex. They complained about the enormous stench the installations gave off when watering the pitch. Consequently, the field was temporarily closed in 2016 “due to the poor water quality used to irrigate the grass”. However, it has never reopened.
Meanwhile, water mismanagement in Matalascañas comes under the largest fine Spain has ever received from the EU. The fine concerns the lack of adequate wastewater treatment in several Spanish areas. For 31 years, Spain has not complied with European wastewater regulations. In nine agglomerations, including this coastal town in Huelva, the water is not treated well.
In response to the EU fines, Spain drew up a program of measures to improve the status of wastewater treatment. However, they do not contain measures designed to end the already identified degradation of the habitat types protected in the vicinity of Matalascañas.
‘Problem is put in a drawer’
As a result of the CJEU ruling, the new hydrological plan 2021-2027 contains several alternatives for the extraction of water from Doñana for Matalascañas. The document acknowledges that “the lagoons closest to Matalascañas are experiencing greater decline than expected.”
Among the alternatives that are “ongoing or whose implementation is technically easy and relatively affordable” is being considered the relocation of two wells and the construction of a sewage treatment plant. In total, the cost would be around €40 – €50 million. Around €25 million of which corresponds to a new sewage treatment plant in Matalascañas.
Lacking in political will
For Carmona, the “relocation” of the wells is not enough. Because this only “changes the location problem, you keep getting water from Doñana”. According to him, what needs to be done is “urgently start abstracting surface water at other points. There are two options: Almonte or Mazagón. The solution is known, but the political will is lacking.”
Another possibility would be to supply Matalascañas from surface water via a transshipment of the Palos de la Frontera ETAP, in the Tinto-Odiel-Piedras basin. This work would require approximately €10 million, comparable to one of the other alternatives, such as building a desalination plant that can supply only Matalascañas.
As Díaz points out, alternatives are being studied to provide Matalascañas with water without having to tap the aquifer. But continues: “What I don’t know is when that will happen. Because by the time they restore the water, the lagoons will have dried up and the species that give them value will have been lost.”
The researcher regrets that “the fragile nature of Doñana’s ecosystem is not understood” and refers to the need to educate the population about sustainable use of water and the consequences that over-extraction in Doñana can have.
Carmona sees it clearly: “If you want to solve a problem, you prioritise expenses, contracts, classify it as urgent and arrange it. If not, you put it in a drawer, and that’s where it is now”.
Meanwhile, Andalusia is going through a drought that the area has not experienced since the 1990s. The Hydrographic Confederation of the Guadalquivir already warned if this continues, there will be crops that cannot be planted this year.
Temperatures this summer have set records at several points. But Matalascañas will continue to receive its avalanche of tourists this summer and weekends. And an increasingly drier Doñana will continue to supply the coastal town.