Dead fish washed up on the shores of el Mar Menor

Spanish government to pump extra €100m into saving polluted lagoon

Image credit: Photograph: Pacto por el Mar Menor

Efforts to regenerate a heavily polluted lagoon - labelled one of the biggest ecological catastrophes in Europe - in south-east Spain have been bolstered with an extra €100m of funding from the Spanish central government.

Teresa Ribera, Spain’s minister for ecological transition and demographic challenge, visited El Mar Menor (‘The Little Sea’) last week to announce the additional funding, which represents an increase of 26.7 per cent. Overall, the Spanish government has committed to investing €484m by 2026.

The degradation of the 135km2 coastal saltwater lagoon in Murcia made international headlines in 2016 when extreme eutrophication led to thousands of dead fish and crustaceans being washed on up on shore.

Two more mass die-offs took place in 2019 and 2021, with algae blooms turning the water green. These blooms block sunlight and reduce oxygen in the water, making it difficult for aquatic life to survive.   

El Mar Menor is a protected EU site under the Ramsar wetlands convention, but runoff rich in fertiliser from decades of intensive agriculture has drained into the lagoon, leading to the algae blooms.

Illegal irrigation, mining and a huge expansion in tourism since the 1970s have also contributed to the problem.

Ribera said €20m of the funding would be used to help farmers in the region reduce nitrate pollution at source and help them adapt to climate change with nature-based solutions.

In addition, she said the funding would substantially increase measures to restore ecosystems in the perimeter strip of El Mar Menor, while another €20m would support local councils to improve sanitation networks and systems that prevent discharges into the lagoon.

Green groups welcomed the visit. The 'SOS Mar Menor Platform', which comprises several environmental campaign groups including Pact for the Mar Menor and Ecologists in Action, as well as WWF, praised Ribera’s “clear commitment to measures at source and based on nature”.

These measures include restoring the natural watercourses , reforesting the ramblas banks and establishing flooding areas to avoid the sediments to reach the Mar Menor.

SOS Mar Menor also said it welcomed the progress made in monitoring compliance with the law. Currently, 38 agricultural businesses are under criminal investigation for illegal irrigation.

However, the organisation was critical of the Spanish government’s announcement that it would expand and restore an old pumping station at the mouth of the Rambla del Albujón, the region’s principle natural waterway that carries the runoff water from the surrounding farms. The measure would see the contaminated water then treated and reused for agricultural purposes. 

SOS Mar Menor pointed out that this is an expensive option and that some farmers in the region doubted whether the reused water would be of a high enough quality for irrigation purposes. The group argued that such an “end-of-pipe" measure was also contradictory with the rest of actions such as ‘renaturalising’ the waterways and connecting them with flood zones and wetlands.

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