GETTING TO WITH………THE MAR MENOR

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Getting to grips with Spain often involves disentangling a massive knot of contradictions and the contamination of the Mar Menor and the destruction and flooding of properties and seafronts is a perfect example.
While ecologists blame savage urbanization and intensive farming for both unnatural disasters, the regional government of Murcia is striving to defend farmers, launch an aggressive advertising campaign to attract tourism and pass the buck onto central government.
Caught in the middle of all this political wrangling is a sea, which is not a sea at all, but a lagoon 22 kilometres long and, at points, just100 metres wide, separated from the Mediterranean by a cordon of land 22 kilometres long. It is a unique saltwater ecosystem, popular with tourists, which is seriously in danger.
The coast of Mar Menor stretches from La Manga to San Javier, taking in the ironically named Mar de Cristal, and the flood ridden Los Alcazares. It is currently pea green.
Despite assurances from the regional government that, regardless of its unpleasant appearance, the lagoon is free of bacteria and “perfect for bathing” the general consensus amongst ecologists and biologists is that without swift action to rectify the situation it will die.
The beginning, and the beginning of the end, of the story of Mar Menor, dates back to the dictatorship, when the lawyer, Tomás Maestre Aznar, became the owner of the stretch of sand: wild and untouched by human hand and apparently worthless, between the lagoon and the Mediterranean.
Thanks to his contacts with Franco the area became one of the places chosen by the regime for a new industry: tourism and a Catalan architect, Antonio Bonet, was charged with transforming this magical place in the middle of nowhere into a luxurious tourist destination for foreign visitors.
This stretch of idyllic coast has been the subject of uncontrolled urbanization for decades and this and intensive farming along the coast dumping nitrates into the lagoon have combined to collapse the ecosystem.
Apart from human sewerage being filtered into the lagoon and the increased pressure from tourism, something else had a very special effect on the lagoon between 1974 and 1975.
In order that larger boats could enter the port Tomas Maestre, the Canal del Estacio, one of the points between the wetlands and the Mediterranean, was expanded to facilitate large, luxury yachts. However, it also opened the door for the Mediterranean to enter, totally changing the nature of the lagoon forever.
At the same time another huge project transformed farming on agricultural land around Cartagena and along the banks of the lagoon: the Travase Tajo-Segura (transfer of water from the river Tajo to the river Segura).
Thanks to the transfer fields which were once “secano” (dry without irrigation water) were suddenly cultivable, and as fertilizers were added to the irrigation water, nitrates seeped into the lagoon causing alga to grow on the surface and a type of grass (Caulpera) to grow on the bottom of the lagoon. According to some experts at a depth of three metres the lagoon is completely dead.
Even with the water transfer from the river Tajo there was never enough water for the intensive farming methods in the land around Cartagena and in April 2019 the Guardia Civil used a helicopter to enter and inspect 67 farms around Cartagena. They sealed off 35 illegal wells and 38 unauthorized desalination plants for treating saltwater. During the process of eliminating the salt from seawater, brackish waste water full of nutrients is produced and pumped back into the lagoon along with the excess irrigation water, also full of nutrients.
The intensive farming and the uncontrolled urbanization of the coastline, including on wetlands and areas vulnerable to flooding, have direct implications on the flooding of seaside properties and the destruction of seafronts.
The licences for the construction of hotels, apartment blocks, private housing, golf courses and other tourist projects are in the hands of the regional authority, not the national government, and have been issued in spite of laws requiring wetlands, flood zones and beach areas to be respected.
Furthermore, the Regional Autonomous Government of Murcia is not complying with its legal obligation to guarantee and respect wetlands and flood risk areas by eliminating housing and infrastructures situated in these zones or by prohibiting further urbanization.
The increasing catastrophic flooding experienced in Los Alcazares, San Javier and various other points on the coast of Mar Menor, has affected populations living on wetlands, seafronts and in other areas vulnerable to flooding, often due to the destruction of natural barriers such as sand dunes to accommodate seaside walks or seafront properties.
In September 2019 residents of the coast, along with the rest of Murcia and the south of Alicante, experienced catastrophic, torrential rain (DANA or Gota Frïa) with as much as 450 litres por square metre of rainfall in 48 hours. The resulting flooding causing eight deaths and 700 people had to be rescued by emergency services.
A month later the residents of the northern coastline of Mar Menor woke up to find thousands of dead and dying fish floating at the water´s edge and washed up on the beach. Within three days some three tons of rotting fish and crustaceans were collected from the beaches.
Analysis confirmed death was for anoxemia (lack of oxygen). The waters of the Mar Menor presented an ecosystem which was clinically dead.
The regional government and many regional institutions blamed the weather.
According to the Spanish Institute of Oceanography the storms unloaded 60 cubic hectometers of water which poured 100,000 tons of mud and debris into the Mar Menor. This freshwater also contained 400 to 1,000 tons of nitrates, more than 100 tons of phosphates and 35 tons of ammonium and heavy metals from ancient abandoned mines. This lethal cocktail of contamination was later identified as the principal cause of the death of the fish.
However, when the Mar Menor received this contaminated flood of freshwater it was already contaminated by an excessive wealth of nutrients, principally from fertilizers and sewerage. These facilitate dense growth of plant life, block the light and stop oxygen getting into the water creating a dead zone where no organism can survive.
Pedro Sanchez, President of Spain, muted terminating the water transfer just before last year´s General Elections but the suggestion was clearly not a vote winner in Murcia, causing a total mutiny amongst farmers in Cartagena.  Nowadays the PSOE/Podemos Coalition talk more about the need for ecological farming in the zone.
The Autonomous Regional Government has set aside 56 million euros in the budget for the Mar Menor, Measures include some eight million for improved sewerage systems and measures to clean up the lagoon. The government also introduced fines of up to 500,000 euros for “grave offences” by farmers; the prohibition of fertilizers on the first 500 metre fringe of the coast; limits to the cycles of cultivation in Cartagena and the temporary suspension of new urban developments. The decree also impedes navigation of two stroke engine high speedboats.
Biologists, ecologists and the Pact for Mar Menor Platform have rejected the decree as “ineffective” full of “ridiculous restrictions.”
The same groups have applied to the European Commission to open an infringement procedure specific to the Mar Menor for failing to comply with EU directives, which may have some success as the EU has already raised their alarm over the state of the lagoon on several occasions.
So where do we go from here? There are desperate measures afoot in many resorts to get ready for the Easter week tourist trade. Beaches, some of which have virtually disappeared, are being rebuilt, and seafronts reconstructed. A massive cleanup is underway and the regional government have launched an aggressive advertising campaign to convince tourists that the resorts of Mar Menor are open for business. Tests seem to demonstrate that, despite its pea green colour, the lagoon is safe for bathers.
Of course, we all wish the long suffering populations of these resorts a steady recovery of their livelihoods.  But it all seems a little short sighted.
If the environmentalists are correct this history of errors seems condemned to repeat itself year after year until there will be absolutely no hope of recovery for this precious lagoon.
Intensive farming methods seem likely to continue for the new future.
Sewerage will continue to be pumped into the sea until the new systems are in place.
The regional authority has only temporarily suspended the issue of building licences.
Sanchez has no authority over building regulations although he could change the law to prohibit more building along the coast and oblige the regional authorities to demolish those properties which break current laws.
He could stop the Tajo-Segura Water transfer and put an end to the intensive farming by big business in the “garden of Murcia” around Cartagena.
The question probably comes down to which option is less unpopular. However, in the end the result could be the same. If the lagoon irrevocably dies there will be no tourist industry on the Mar Menor: just a series of ghost towns and a pea green lagoon.



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1 pensamiento sobre “GETTING TO WITH………THE MAR MENOR

  1. Lynne

    It’s such a pity that, as usual, money is more important than nature. What was probably once a marvellous natural resource has been totally destroyed by humans.

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