Friday, July 1

Toxic spills, urban planning and plastics weave a network of black spots on Spanish beaches

Spain has about 8,000 kilometers of coastline. It is a key natural heritage in the Iberian Peninsula, the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands, which supports two great pressures. On the one hand, the coastline has become an economic resource of the first order as an asset of the tourist industry. On the other, and related, despite the fact that the coast barely accounts for 8% of the territory, approximately half of the Spanish population lives there.

How to stop the devastation of storms like Gloria after decades of wild urbanism: “Let the beach be a beach again”

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Once the summer season begins, the beaches become a pole of attraction. Historically, municipalities that want to promote their beaches have displayed a blue flag as a quality mark – a badge awarded by the NGO Association for Environmental and Consumer Education. This year there are about 600. On the other side, more than 300 coastal locations can be considered black spots.

The attacks on the Spanish coast also make up a kind of network: polluting discharges, invasive urban planning, accumulation of garbage or the proliferation of exotic species deteriorate many beaches. The Ecologistas en Acción organization has been collecting examples of how the coast is degrading for years. A map that illustrates and alerts about the environmental problems that continue to pressure the coastline. They call it black flags.

Wastewater discharges

One of the main agents that deteriorate Spanish beaches is the discharge of wastewater and poorly treated. A quarter of the 330 black spots made visible by Ecologists have to do with pollution of the coastline based on wastewater (urban or agricultural). In Sanlúcar de Barrameda or in Barbate (Cádiz), in Costacabana (Almería), in Motril (Granada), on the Estepona coast (Málaga), on Poo beach (Asturias), in Cubelles (Barcelona), in Ribeira ( A Coruña), in the Arroyo Mezquita de Melilla, in the Bay of Xàbia (Alicante), in the Port de Pollença (Mallorca) …

The problem “is recurring”, warns the organization. The failures when undertaking urban water purification are a headache for Spain. So much so that, since 2018, the State has paid 10 million euros every six months to the European Union for not complying with the legislation. The sanction came for deficiencies in nine agglomerations –denounced in 2011–, of which eight were coastal: Barbate, Coín, Isla Cristina, Nerja, Matalascañas, Tarifa, Gijón and the Güimar Valley.

The general director of Water, Teodoro Estrela, has admitted that “we have a major problem of sanitation and purification.” In fact, the European Commission still has four files open for poor purification. On June 9, Brussels sent an ultimatum to Spain before sending, for this reason, another case to the Court of Justice: more than 300 urban agglomerations are under the scrutiny of the Commission.

An urbanism that does not stop

The occupation of the coastline by residential complexes or infrastructures is the second most prominent category of the cases indicated by Ecologists. Among the most recent are the urban threat to Los Lances beach (Tarifa, Cádiz), the permanent occupation with beach bars on the Malaga coast, the construction projects in Begur (Girona) or the Cala Mosca urbanization in Orihuela (Alicante).

That the fury of the brick has made meat on the beaches is obvious. The urbanized coastline in Spain doubled in the three decades after the publication of the 1988 Coastal Law. From 240,000 to 530,000 hectares built, according to calculations by Greenpeace and the Sustainability Forum. That represents 13% of the coastline. And examples like those highlighted by the Ecologists in Action review indicate that the shadow is still hovering.

At this time, the legislation that governs the coastline is the reform of the Coastal Law promoted by the PP in 2013. Among its provisions, the text reduced the protected strip of coast from 100 to 20 meters, and extended the concession term for the occupations in the public domain up to age 75. Some 3,000 beach bars and 10,000 homes were thus amnestied.

The consequences of climate change on the coast, such as the rise in sea level and the increase in coastal storms, have evidenced the impact of this urban planning model: recurrently destroyed promenades, collapses of road infrastructures, danger to homes very close to the sea line … After the destruction caused by the storm Gloria in January 2020, the College of Geologists proposed a process of deconstruction of the coast: “A reconstruction so that nature can recover what is its own,” they explained. The best defense against storms is that the beach is a beach.

Plastics in the sea

Some 120 tons of plastics reach the sea from Spain every day. And, although a large part remains on the ocean floor or roams the surface of the sea, another portion ends up on the beaches, added to what is dumped directly on them. The flysch biotope of Zumaia (Gipuzkoa) has been an iconic image of plastic pollution because it is a protected landscape, yes, but also because it was the setting for the popular Game of Thrones series.

76% of the waste on the beaches are pieces of plastic, according to the coastal surveillance campaigns of the Ministry of Ecological Transition: disposable objects such as cotton buds, straws, cutlery or bottles. Last year, researchers from the Universities of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and the Azores Islands and the Smithsonian Center for Environmental Sciences in the United States published a study that illustrated that the concentration of microplastics that float in the Canary Sea dragged by the turn of the Atlantic it reaches one million fragments per square kilometer in some areas. In Las Canteras its mass doubles that of zooplankton, they said.

Industry, ports, cruise ships

In addition to these generalized dangers, the coastline shows quite famous and prolonged attacks in time for various reasons, such as industrial pollution in the Ría de Huelva or Portman Bay in the Region of Murcia, the activity of the ENCE paper mill in Pontevedra or oil leaks in Bizkaia. On another line, leisure cruise traffic and port extensions are threatening the coastlines of Barcelona or Valencia.

To complete the picture, the biological invasions of exotic species that reduce the natural wealth are pointed out. Among the most aggressive varieties detected is the alga Caulerpa cylindracea at various points on the Girona coastline and on the coast between the Tarajal and the Levante breakwater (Ceuta). Also the Rugulopteryx okamurae, who stowed away five years ago, threatens the Mediterranean.