Drought Threatens Crops, Wildlife Along Spain's Guadalquivir River Delta : Parallels As they drill more wells to water crops, drought-stricken farmers in southwest Spain confront environmentalists in Doñana National Park, a migratory bird refuge that's lost 80 percent of its aquifer.
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Drought Threatens Crops, Wildlife Along Spain's Guadalquivir River Delta

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Drought Threatens Crops, Wildlife Along Spain's Guadalquivir River Delta

Drought Threatens Crops, Wildlife Along Spain's Guadalquivir River Delta

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This summer, we'll be bringing you stories on the effects of climate change on people around the world. We begin in Spain and Portugal, where an early summer heat wave has ignited devastating forest fires. More than 60 people died in one fire there. Reporter Lauren Frayer takes us now to Europe's southwest tip, where people are struggling to keep their farms in business and also protect wildlife amid severe water shortages.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Wild horses and cattle graze on the marshy banks of southern Spain's mighty Guadalquivir River. From the mouth of this river, Christopher Columbus set off for the New World. But since then, the river has gotten more salty. As freshwater is extracted for agriculture, drought - made more frequent by climate change - means less rainfall replaces it. Tides send saltwater farther up river.

JOSE GODOY: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: This pumping station sucks 800 gallons out of the river per second, diverting it to irrigation canals. Jose Godoy tests the salt content every hour.

GODOY: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: Sodium Chloride.

GODOY: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: When the water gets too salty, it poisons crops, he explains. So Godoy cuts the water supply to the canals. Crops can die of drought.

MANOLO CANO LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: Three times in the past two decades, Rice farmer Manolo Cano Lopez hasn't been able to grow anything at all - not enough freshwater.

CANO LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) When I was a kid, people lived here without running water or electricity. I want a certain standard of living for my children without damaging the environment.

FRAYER: But making a living without damaging the environment is getting harder here. Weather patterns have changed, Cano says.

CANO LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) The rain comes less often, but when it does, there are violent storms.

FRAYER: This is what scientists say we can expect from a changing climate and a warming planet.

CANO LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) It's damaging my crops. They're like my babies - these delicate rice plants.

FRAYER: This is Spain's biggest rice growing area. Yep, you heard that right. They grow rice submerged in water in this hot dry climate. But that's not the worst of it because rice farmers draw water from the river. The bigger problem here is berries. This region supplies about a third of all of Europe's strawberries. And strawberry farmers drill wells into the aquifer.

FELIPE FUENTELSAZ: And the problem with the aquifer is something that you don't see because it's like an underground pool, and you don't know exactly what happen.

FRAYER: But Felipe Fuentelsaz does have some idea. He measures groundwater levels for the World Wildlife Fund. And he says 80 percent of this region's aquifer has dried up. Some farmers without permits hauled drilling rigs out into the forest in the middle of the night. Fuentelsaz says there are about 10,000 illegal wells around here. And local officials aren't doing enough to stop them. He pulls up Google Earth on his laptop.

FUENTELSAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: So we're looking at Google Earth - the satellite image of these dirt roads that cut through a forest. And then we've zoomed in on what looks like a little lake. And you say there are 14 illegal wells?

FUENTELSAZ: Yeah. This is an illegal reservoir in the middle of the forest - 14, 15 pipes from boreholes in the area that go to a farm.

FRAYER: He gave me GPS coordinates to find one such reservoir, where farmers store the water they've sucked out of the aquifer illegally.

It's beautiful crystal clear water. And it's like a swimming pool, perfectly dug out, like, deep also. It's about half a football field in size with maybe a dozen pipes pouring water from auxiliary wells all around the countryside here.

This isn't only about farmers stealing water. It's about farmers stealing water that won't be replenished as quickly by rainfall because of increasing drought. Scientist Fuentelsaz says climate change is already driving up temperatures here.

FUENTELSAZ: At the moment, they are increasing 0.07 degrees every year. So it's something that's really high. The normal seasons have been moved. So this is really a complete change for biodiversity - for the flora, for fauna.

FRAYER: I've just pulled over on the side of this small farm track. And it's so blistering hot here that I have to schedule interviews very early in the morning. So I'm up early watching the sunrise here. On one side of me, there's a row of little signs that say Dow seeds. This is big industrial commercial farming near a tractor going past behind me. And on the other side, there are miles and miles of marshland. And I can see a row of pink flamingos in the distance. Every impact humans make here has a consequence. And that's because this is the edge of one of Europe's most important wetlands, Donana National Park.

JUAN PEDRO CASTELLANO: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: Park Director Juan Pedro Castellano takes me on a four-by-four tour. Last year, UNESCO cited all of these illegal wells when it threatened to put Donana on its danger list of World Heritage Sites just like the Florida Everglades. Donana would be the first national park in the European Union to make the list. As farmers drain Donana's aquifer, lagoons shrink in the National Park, which is home to wild horses and about 6 million migratory birds.

CASTELLANO: (Through interpreter) Look at all the ducks, flamingos. So many species of birds in this one lagoon alone. It's just like climate change. We don't know exactly what will happen and how fast, but where we'll see things is in these lagoons and wetlands right here.

FRAYER: Manmade water shortages, the park director says, are essentially giving us a preview of how this whole region will experience climate change. Scientists predict rising temperatures will dry out this area.

CASTELLANO: (Through interpreter) If the aquifers drain, this area gets dominated more and more by desert plants like that one there. It reduces the biodiversity in this sandy part of the park.

CANO LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: The seasons have already changed for rice farmer Manolo Cano. Spring comes earlier. None of his children has taken up the family business. He wonders what it must have been like 500 years ago when Christopher Columbus sailed through here.

CANO LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "They must have been able to water their crops as much as they wanted," he says, "and never worry."

CANO LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "It's the price we pay for modernity," he says. "We have to grow food, but to do it, we've changed this landscape forever." For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer on the Guadalquivir Delta in southern Spain.


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