Politicians engage in blame game over Mar Menor environmental disaster but offer few solutions

Nearly five tons of dead fish have washed up in recent days in the saltwater lagoon in Murcia. The central and regional governments both argue they lack the powers needed to tackle the situation

The empty Isla de Ciervo beach in Cartagena on Monday, as visitors stay away due to the environmental situation at the Mar Menor.
The empty Isla de Ciervo beach in Cartagena on Monday, as visitors stay away due to the environmental situation at the Mar Menor.

The serious environmental crisis at the Mar Menor saltwater lagoon in Murcia, southeastern Spain, has worsened over the last 10 days with the appearance of nearly five tons of dead fish, which were asphyxiated due to a lack of oxygen. A similar phenomenon was seen in 2019, with thousands of fish washing up after being asphyxiated by the effects of intensive farming nearby. The central government – a coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and leftist Unidas Podemos – has blamed the regional administration for the situation, claiming that “years of inaction and permissiveness of actions that damage the environment” are to blame. The Popular Party (PP), meanwhile, which is in power in Murcia, is claiming that the region does not have the powers needed to solve the crisis and is calling on the central government to act.

Speaking after the weekly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, government spokesperson Isabel Rodríguez claimed that the “Spanish government is fully committed to seeking solutions to what is happening in the Mar Menor.” But, she added, the current situation “is not something that takes place in a day or a weekend,” but is, she claimed, the result of “years of neglect” of the powers of the Murcia regional government, which is currently led by Fernando López Miras of the PP. The conservative group has been in power in the region since 1995.

“What needs to happen is for each [government] to exercise its powers,” the government spokesperson continued on Tuesday. “The government is exercising its powers and the Murcia government needs to as well. This is a major problem.” Rodríguez pointed to 8,000 hectares of land having been detected that are using illegal irrigation systems, excessive use of nitrates and the resulting run-off of contaminated waters.

This is not a battle over powers but rather the Murcia regional government failing to exercise its powers
Government spokesperson Isabel Rodríguez

What’s more, she continued, the Civil Guard’s nature protection service Seprona and the environmental public prosecutor have issued 800 administrative proceedings “that are not being processed by the Murcia regional government.”

“This is not a battle over powers but rather the Murcia regional government failing to exercise its powers,” Rodríguez, who is also the minister for territorial policy, argued on Tuesday, pointing out that the central government had declared the aquifer to be at risk of chemical contamination without the decision having received the backing of the Murcia regional government.

The issue, she continued, is of concern for reasons including the environment, the local economy, the reputation of the agricultural products that Spain exports and tourism in the area. She added that the central government is “fully committed” to finding solutions to the environmental crisis, but that it has done “all that it can.”

Meanwhile, the president of the main opposition Popular Party, Pablo Casado, called on the parties and administrations to stop fighting over the situation at the Mar Menor and to address the problem. “If there is a solution, it needs to be found now,” he said. He referred to previous statements made by Murcian premier López Miras, who has called on the central government to deal with the situation given that, he argues, the regional administration lacks the powers to do so.

Every day, 30 million liters of fresh water and five tons of nutrients from agriculture wash up in the Mar Menor via the Albujón watercourse. The PP has proposed that this water “be diverted to a sump and be pumped to purification plants so that it can be used for watering crops, or at least it later be diverted to the Mediterranean Sea after filtering and not the Mar Menor,” according to Casado. “And this is something that we do not have the powers to do.”

The PP’s proposed measures have been contested by experts, who question the effect they could have on the Mediterranean

The conservative group has also proposed draining the mouth of the Marchamalo – an artificial canal that connects the lagoon with the Mediterranean – given that it is full of sediment. These measures, however, have been contested by experts, who question the effect they could have on the Mediterranean, which is already suffering from high levels of pollution.

The Murcia regional government is also disputing that there are 800 administrative proceedings that are yet to be processed relating to the Mar Menor, and has flatly denied that it is not exercising its powers. In a statement, the administration claims that there are 113 open proceedings related to illegal irrigation that have been opened by the CHS state water regulator in the area, meaning that “there are no orders that have not been processed.”

The regional government is arguing that the CHS should sanction and cut off the illegal use of water in agriculture before passing the cases along to the Murcia administration. “Only the CHS has powers to end illegal irrigation and the damage that this is causing to the environment,” the region argues.

Pablo Echenique, the spokesperson in the Congress of Deputies for coalition partner Unidas Podemos, has accused PP leader Pablo Casado of trying to deceive people over the issue by claiming the regional government does not have the powers needed to address the problem. He questioned why the media “spreads these lies in quote marks instead of putting the truth in the headline.” Echenique insisted that the majority of the powers to deal with the environmental disaster lie with the regional government.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Alianza Verde party (Green Alliance), Juantxo López de Uralde, slammed Casado for “not assuming responsibilities” even in places where the PP “has been governing for decades,” as is the case of Murcia.

“Stop the surge”

The minister for environmental transition, Teresa Ribera, will visit the area today in order to offer the government’s assistance, but she has also called on the Murcia regional government to “stop the surge in nitrates that the Mar Menor is receiving.” She joined the calls for López Miras to process the proceedings opened by the CHS, Seprona and the public prosecutor. Ribera is due to meet with the mayors of the area to seek solutions and convey the position of the government, something that is also due to happen in Congress.

Meanwhile, local residents and visitors alike are growing increasingly impatient with the situation, and have been collecting signatures for petitions that call for action to be taken. At the same time, complaints from organizations and experts are piling up. The ANSE naturalist association warned on Tuesday that more fish are likely to die because the contaminated waters – which starve the creatures of oxygen – are still running into the saltwater lagoon, which is the biggest of its kind in Europe. For its part, agricultural NGO Fundación Ingenio has called for “urgent solutions to tackle this environmental drama, which is particularly affecting those who live on the shores of the lagoon.”

English version by Simon Hunter.

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