Spain's Andalusia region to buy land to expand endangered wetland

FILE PHOTO: Spain's Donana nature reserve at risk from droughts

MADRID (Reuters) - The government of the southern Spanish region of Andalusia plans to buy swathes of land around the Donana National Park in a bid to preserve and expand its wetlands threatened by frequent droughts, rising temperatures and illegal water usage.

Regional leader Juanma Moreno said on Tuesday the planned purchase of 7,500 hectares (18,533 acres) would expand Donana's area by 14% in what he called "the biggest action for the conservation of the park in the last decades".

Scientists warn that the park, endangered by climate change and illegal irrigation, is in critical condition with lagoons drying out and biodiversity disappearing, and urge a reduction in the pumping of water.

The Donana wetlands harbour many endemic and threatened species, such as freshwater eels and turtles and provide an important refuge for migratory birds heading southward after breeding in northern Europe.

Average rainfall in Spain over the past 12 months has been 17% lower than the average recorded between 1991 and 2020. The environment ministry has said climate change was causing increasingly frequent and intense droughts, with Spain being more vulnerable than other European countries.

The planned land purchase comes after Moreno's conservative administration came under heavy criticism from environmentalists and the government in Madrid over its plan to legalise additional irrigation around Donana.

The purchase includes around 3,500 ha of artificial wetland in Veta la Palma estate that was used as fish farms until 2021 and now runs the risk of drying out.

Donana's lagoons are surrounded by a sea of greenhouses and a complex system of pipes that take water from illegally drilled wells for use by farmers growing strawberries and other berries.

Acting Environment Minister Teresa Ribera, whose Socialist- led national government has vowed to protect the park, welcomed the measure but said it does not tackle the problem of lack of water head on.

She has announced a plan to spend more than 12 billion euros to alleviate the impact of drought. The funds will go mostly towards reusing water, building desalination plants and improving water infrastructure, she added.

(Reporting by Emma Pinedo, editing by Andrei Khalip, Alexandra Hudson)