(1 Dec 2016) FOR CLEAN VERSION SEE STORY NUMBER: 4069038
The World Wildlife Fund says excessive water extraction is putting Donana National Park, one of Europe's most celebrated conservation wetlands, at grave risk.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNSECO) wants the Spanish government to explain its plans for the park, which receives around 6 million migratory birds annually.
The site is currently a candidate for UNESCO's list of endangered world heritage sites.
Donana National Park in the western region of Andalusia, the southern portion of the Iberian peninsula, is one of Europe's most celebrated conservation wetlands.
The 54,251.7 hectare (134 acre) park is home to lynx, otters, eagles and other endangered species and consists of several waterways that wind through the Spanish provinces of Huelva and Seville.
The part-wetland wilderness has also a complex of lakes that receives around six million migratory birds annually and is a paradise for tourists and bird-watchers.
However, according to a recent report by the conservation group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the park is drying up at an alarming rate due to excessive water extraction.
They say the park is at risk of being placed on UNESCO's (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) list of endangered world heritage sites.
UNESCO is due to receive a report from the Spanish government on December 1, to evaluate the country's plans for the park.
Donana consists of a protected World Heritage site, also known as the national park, and a natural reserve area - both under the management of the regional government of Andalusia.
According to WWF, more than 1000 illegal wells drilled by local farmers in the area have overexploited the park's aquifer and it needs between 30 to 60 years to recover from the aggressive farming of mainly strawberries.
The livelihood of the local community depends on the production of strawberries, which account for nearly 90 percent of the production in Spain, according to data from the Association of Strawberry farmers in the southern province of Huelva.
The Spanish strawberry industry generates an estimated 400 million euros (424 million USD) annually.
But Felipe Fuentelsaz, Coordinator for WWF in Donana says the intensive irrigation system to cultivate strawberry farms have dwindled Donana's liquid lifeline.
"We cannot allow this to happen. We are talking about an environment which is important to many species and an aquifer that sustains one of the most important wetlands in Europe."
Local farmers however, complain that recent campaigns by environmentalists have criminalised their activities and that they have offered proposals to address the problem.
Cristobal Picon, President of the irrigation platform of Huelva region and head of a strawberry cooperative farm based in Lucena del Puerto, near the Natural Reserve area, says farmers are willing to close some of their illegal wells.
"The problem is that the environmentalists have a very powerful communication (with the media) and it seems that what we say is a lie and what they say is the truth. It is regrettable that they are playing with the jobs of thousands of families and we are trying to find a balance between the two groups, which is compatible. Because it has always been there (the aquifer) and was conserved by our grandparents."
WWF however, indicates that they have yet to reach an agreement with farmers regarding the number of illegal wells and farms and therefore this proposal does not seem adequate to help raise the water level of the aquifer.
WWF has also expressed concern regarding the possibility of a gas project in an area nearby the park.
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