Saturday, September 18

The Mar Menor tragedy: politics and agribusiness allied against science and society

The Mar Menor was one of the most important natural areas in Europe and the preferred summer resort for many Spaniards. Today it is a monument to the environmental disaster that is periodically in the news for acute pollution events accompanied by shocking images of thousands of dead fish. It has happened many times, but most spectacularly in 2016 and 2018 and it just happened again these mid days August 2021. Three decades of breaking the law are running out with life in the Mar Menor.

So dirty and smelly is the Mar Menor that many people give it up for lost. Or, even worse, it considers it a suitable place to dump waste and polluted water. So murky is the social and political scene in Murcia, that many farmers believe that their subsistence depends on continuing to pollute the Mar Menor and extract without limit the water from the subsoil or the Tajo-Segura transfer, when that is precisely what compromises their subsistence. Meanwhile, many tomatoes and cucumbers continue to be produced in the “garden of Europe”, and many entrepreneurs continue to enrich themselves thanks to the miracle of growing vegetables in the middle of the desert. Because let’s not forget that this garden in Europe is located in one of the driest areas of the entire continent. The desert sets the sun and the heat. Politicians and businessmen work the miracle by providing the essential ingredient of which deserts are always scarce: water. They bring her from afar, through the controversial Tajo-Segura transfer that turned rainfed into irrigation since 1979, bleeding to a distant river that barely wears Ecological flow in a good part of its journey. And they also get it by turning a blind eye to the overexploitation of water in situ, allowing the illegal desalination of the Mar Menor to later dump the resulting toxic brine into the sea itself, and allowing the no less illegal exploitation of the few aquifers that still remain. Let’s remember the sealed by the Civil Guard of 60 desalination plants illegal in Murcia and the closure of 42 wells that threatened the Mar Menor in March of this year. The miracle is of such magnitude that, by exploding the ecology of the region, they have managed to position Murcia as a world power in the fruit and vegetable market: one in five vegetables exported in Spain comes from the Murcian Region.

A sea dies while a very weak grassroots economy flourishes in the desert. Such is the clash of objectives and positions in the Murcian community on this matter that the lack of a scientific and technical voice to tackle the problem head-on is striking. The most worrying thing is that there is a supposedly scientific and technical voice, the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Mar Menor. But due to his lack of independence and rigor, he is unable to resolve the issue. His conclusions do not stand up. They do not survive even the most elementary question or criticism. Your most common resource is blame a DANA or to certain meteorological conditions of the mortality of marine fauna, and always rule out against all evidence the lack of oxygen as responsible for this mortality. The Committee has always made it possible to downplay what is already the chronicle of a death foretold. In this last event of 2021 they strive to blame the death toll on the heat wave, but the Southeast Meteorological Association (AMETSE) has been quick to clarify that the temperature of the Mar Menor is perfectly normal for mid-August and that is not at all responsible for what happened. Despite the fact that the Government of the Region of Murcia wants to draw a thick veil over this new event, the situation is so serious that it has attracted the attention of the international press. In a detailed article in the British newspaper The Guardian It is explained that the mortality has affected species such as the blue crab, a very resistant predator that with its death demonstrates the seriousness of the contamination. In a article in the New York Times it unfolds as the tragedy of the Mar Menor is part of a general and worrying degradation of the Spanish coast.

The dubious voice of the Mar Menor advisory committee, so dubious that not even independent journalists want to consult, is part of a working group linked to the Ministry of Water, Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and the Environment of the Autonomous Community of the Region of Murcia. A committee that was created for scientific advice on actions to improve the ecological status of the Mar Menor, and which also intended to promote scientific knowledge about the environmental problems of the lagoon and the most appropriate measures for their resolution. But his gaze is far from the objectivity that characterizes science. External experts from this committee had to be those who independently accumulated the pieces of the puzzle that explain the ecological catastrophe of the Mar Menor. This Committee of the Mar Menor not only does not perform its function adequately, but it has managed to block the actions necessary to fulfill the objective for which the committee itself was created. This has generated the more than justified resignation of several members, such as scientists from the Spanish Institute of Oceanography that they could not tolerate the lack of objectivity and rigor of this committee. Its structure and composition have been tried to change several times, but all efforts to reorganize this committee have been effectively neutralized.

What happens in Murcia is not, unfortunately, an exception in Spain. The use of experts in science, technology and humanities for political purposes, particularly in crisis situations, is very effective in silencing or countering the position of scientists and technicians critical of official statements and actions, as we denounced almost a decade ago.

But why hasn’t truthful science just made its way into this serious environmental problem in the Region of Murcia? To get an answer, it is not necessary to go into many details since, basically, it is very simple: it does not break through the devastating influence of agribusiness and the modus operandi of the regional government, so there is no choice but to enter the stormy sea of ​​politics. And here you don’t have to go very deep either. The political question is quickly understood without more than observing some symptoms that speak for themselves and with great eloquence. Symptoms such as throw balls out blaming (it is not well known what) the central government, or dark cases of corruption such as the Topillo case, in which a score of agroindustrial companies and several senior Murcian officials are being investigated, as well as the deep conflicts of interest that prominent and highly controversial positions of the regional government have such as the counselor Antonio Luengo, of the one who takes a long time asking for your resignation.

These are two walls, that of a powerful economic group and that of an opportunistic and biased political team, which are very difficult for science to circumvent. Let us remember which is the main crusade of science, because when there is a lot of money and power involved, we forget everything else. Science, in its eternal exploration of knowledge, seeks to underpin two inalienable rights of society: the right to know and the right to a healthy environment, the latter urgently claimed by the United Nations and present in article 45 of the Spanish Constitution itself. Two rights that are trampled on a daily basis with the tragedy of the Mar Menor. Suffice it to summarize the stubborn evidence of observations and data.

We can start by remembering the concept of the boulevard, a natural channel through which in dry regions like Murcia the water does not run for more than a few days a year and, sometimes, not even every year. Several boulevards that reach the Mar Menor nowadays do not stop carrying water, as is the case, for example, of those that are connected with the controversy Rambla del Albujón, the subject of many complaints. This is not good news because this surplus water is not only extracted from places where it is very much needed, but it also arrives loaded with agrochemicals and especially with a large load of nitrates and phosphates, which are the main source of the problem. Anyway, you cannot understand what happens in the Mar Menor if only the body of the water in the lagoon is analyzed, as does the Ministry, poorly advised by its advisory council. It is necessary to understand at least the algae at the bottom of the lagoon, the filter organisms and the external contribution of nutrients, agrochemicals and brines. The groundwater cannot be blamed for the contamination, especially when the data show that the actual contribution of groundwater to the Mar Menor has been overestimated by eight times. In addition, the phenomenon that the Mar Menor suffers from eutrophication (the excessive proliferation of phytoplankton as a consequence of all the resources dumped there) requires both nitrogen and phosphorus. While surface waters arrive loaded with both, the main aquifer hardly contains phosphorus, so the underground entrance will never be able to explain the eutrophic crisis. Other evidence that they have wanted to look the other way in the explanation of the problem is the temporary improvement that was observed in the Mar Menor when the surface entry of brines and other drains was reduced during the 2016-2017 period, and as the arrival of DANA in 2018, which suddenly swept all the nutrients accumulated on the surface of the Campo de Cartagena and deposited them in the lagoon, made environmental degradation regress to the initial situation. The reason is none other than that of not having really addressed the origin of the contamination: the agribusiness of the area.

A citizen platform has launched a popular legislative initiative (ILP) with the intention of confer legal entity to the Mar Menor in a desperate but at the same time exemplary attempt to reverse the tragedy. It would be the first time for Europe that a natural area has this legal recognition and many of us trust that it would be strategic for the recovery and conservation of such a unique and valuable area as the Mar Menor. Half a million signatures are needed and the deadline ends in October. While this proposal advances, it is necessary to ensure that both agribusiness entrepreneurs and political representatives in the Region of Murcia stop postponing the unavoidable and begin to reconvert agriculture, stop nitrate and brine spills, and stop over-exploiting water from the Pit and subsoil. It is inevitable that this will happen because the rights of citizens, and perhaps those of the Mar Menor itself if the ILP prospers, will end up being imposed. But hopefully all this does not happen too late for the Mar Menor.