Spanish national park could lose Unesco status over illegal boreholes

Strawberry growers are draining water away from wildlife-rich wetlands of Doñana region, putting a variety of species at risk

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Strawberry farm
A strawberry farm in Palos de la Frontera, Huelva, southern Spain. The country is the largest producer of starwberries in the world. Photograph: Samuel Aranda/AFP/Getty Images

Spain must act urgently to stop illegal water extraction from a protected national park or risk the wildlife-rich wetlands being placed on a list of world heritage sites in danger, a UN agency has warned.

Doñana national park in Andalusia is threatened by huge demand for water, fuelled by a strawberry industry which supplies British supermarkets.

Some producers in the area are accused of using illegal boreholes to draw water from underground aquifers, which the fragile ecosystem is dependent on to support a wide range of species.

The Spanish government must introduce measures to regulate water usage in an effort to prevent further damage to the park, Unesco delegates said at a recent World Heritage Committee meeting held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Spanish authorities have been asked to submit an updated report on the state of conservation in the park by 1 February 2014.

reintroduction of two Iberian lynxes in Villafranca de Cordoba, southern Spain, cork oaks An Iberian lynx in Villafranca de Cordoba, southern Spain. Photograph: Cristina Quicler/AFP/Getty Images

Spain is the biggest exporter of strawberries worldwide, with an industry worth an estimated €400m (£342m).

Around 90% of the fruit is produced in the provinces of Huelva and Seville, which surround Doñana, with much of it ending up on the shelves of supermarkets in the UK and other European countries including France and Germany.

But the industry is putting a huge strain on water resources in the region, and is responsible for pollution, including plastic sheeting and pesticides in the water supply.

The WWF is among those campaigning on the issue and has claimed that water irrigating the strawberry farms is reducing water to the marshes by up to 50%.

Doñana is listed as a Unesco world heritage site and biosphere reserve and is home to an abundance of wildlife, including thousands of migratory birds and the critically endangered Iberian Lynx.

"The World Heritage Centre and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) remain concerned about the cumulative impacts of a number of threats to the outstanding universal value of the property, in particular the issue of over-extraction of the Doñana aquifer," read a Unesco statement.

"If these issues are not addressed the property could meet the conditions for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger in the near future."

The fresh warning comes after Spain failed to meet a previous deadline set by Unesco to address the problem.

Andalusia's regional government was previously told to implement a special management plan of irrigation zones around Doñana no later than 1 January 2012. But regional government officials admit that while a so-called 'participatory process' is underway, an official plan is yet to be approved.

The delay is blamed in part on a change in responsibility for the control of ground water around Doñana, which was handed over from Andalusia's regional government to Madrid.

Other threats to the park discussed by the Unesco committee included the proposed dredging of the nearby Guadalquivir estuary and the potential impacts from fossil fuel projects in the vicinity of the park.

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