Julio Escuderos has seen the wetlands go from fertile to parched [Elizabeth Dunningham]

The European Union is asking Spain why one of its precious wetland reserves has been allowed to dry up so much that the peat which lies beneath the surface is on fire.
 
Ecologists blame the mismanagement of water resources and over-irrigation for the environmental tragedy in the Tablas de Daimiel National Park, which is part of a Unesco biosphere and has EU protection.

It's not just the smoke, but the smell that is unbearable, as if something is burning that is not meant to be. And indeed it is – peat, the life-giving soil which forms over thousands of years – is on fire underground in this national park in Spain's central La Mancha region.

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Ecologists: Authorities must rethink their water policies

While the fires came as no surprise to local ecologists, they show the extent to which the wetland has dried out. Of the two rivers which fed the park, one – the Guadiana - dried up in 1986, and the other only flows in the winter, after rain.

The reason: thousands of wells sapping the water from the ground to feed the region's agricultural ambitions.

So the "wet" parts of the park – now only making up one per cent of its territory – are fed by underground wells or piping.

Parched land

Once plentiful in water, the park is now parched dry [Elizabeth Dunningham]

Julio Escuderos was born and still lives in his home inside the park. Now 81, he made a good living fishing in a small boat he used to sail from his house.

In straw baskets, which now hang like decorations in his house, he would catch freshwater crabs.

His parents used to grow melons, pomegranates, tomatoes in the summer – in the winter there was too much water around.

It's hard to imagine that now scarce resource once flooded their fields.

Escuderos surveys the parched land around his house and tells us how it used to be.

"At night you could sit and hear frogs and birds in the water, so many noises, now it's just silent," he says.

"It's bad that they take so much water, because there are some big plantations which take an enormous amount of water, but if the water transportations work and they stop people taking all the water, the park could become very good again."

Like Escuderos, everyone in the park harbours hopes that it can return to what it was before.

Emergency measures

Alejandro Rodriguez Barbero, a park ranger, took us on a birdwatching tour.

But there were only a very few species - cranes in the distance, ducks and a lone goose in the little water there is left  - to see at a time of year that is usually ideal to spot many migratory species.

Ecologists say authorities need to rethink their water policies [Elizabeth Dunningham]

In a small pond under nets, the park has a wide collection of water birds including Iberian ducks and different kinds of grebes.

But these are birds in captivity to show park visitors what they are missing in the months when birds don't come to the park. Now they are necessary all year round.

Workers in the park are carrying out emergency measures to stop the fires – diggers lift and compact the ground, and the government plans to bring water from a nearby reservoir to douse the land.

In his Madrid office, Jose Jimenez, the head of Spain's National Parks, said the authorities have been implementing less short term measures as well.

"We are buying up land around the park to stop water being used there and we also have a plan to compensate farmers to stop irrigating and turn over their land to crops which don't need much water," he said.

Agricultural problems

But ecologists say the authorities need to completely rethink their water policies and enforce them.

Jose Manuel Hernandez, from the Ecologists in Action group, says for too long Spain has mismanaged its water and encouraged agriculture and wine-growing on an enormous scale in the region of La Mancha.

Manuel Hernandez doesn't blame individual farmers.

"The farmers have only followed the recommendations of the government regional which for 20 years or more has been stimulating, and still is despite numerous plans, the irrigation, despite saying they are doing the opposite, the irrigation continues and the lack of water continues."

The lack of water has caused underground peat  to catch on fire [Elizabeth Dunningham]
Farmers and wine-growers agree there's a serious problem. 

Jesus de Juan heads a campaign group called 'Water for Life' which represents thousands working in agriculture in La Mancha.

He says: "The farmer in La Mancha knows how important water is and values water because he knows that without water we will have to leave the area because we couldn't carry on living here."

But he wants any solution to include considerations for the people who work the land.

"The ecologists are right when they say farmers affect the Tablas of Daimiel but what I would ask them, the ecologists, is what should come first, ecology or humans?

"If ecology comes first, great, we just need to find what to do with the 200 or 300,000 people who can't keep on living in this land."

As the world gears up for the Copenhagen climate talks next month, the issue is on everyone's agenda.

And if a lasting solution to climate change is not found, it could certainly make things worse for Tablas de Daimiel in the future.

Source: Al Jazeera