The park that came back from the dead

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

After years of drought and decline, Spain's celebrated Tablas de Daimiel wetlands are teeming with life again


As a boy, Darío Rodríguez marvelled at the flocks of warblers, herons and other birds nesting in the wetlands of Spain's Tablas de Daimiel National Park.

He lived in the town nearby, and as the bright orange sunset reflected on the rippling lagoons ringed with cattails, he would imagine how grateful the migrating birds must be to find a swampy oasis in this unlikely spot: the hot, dusty plains of La Mancha, hospitable only to the hero of Cervantes, Don Quixote.

But since the 1980s, Mr Rodriguez, now a 33-year-old ornithologist and park tour guide, has watched sadly as illegal irrigation wells slowly sucked the flood-plains dry, forcing the park's inhabitants – from flamingos and frogs, butterflies and foxes – to search elsewhere for their meals. In 2009, an underground peat fire threatened to smoke out much of the remaining life.

The situation looked so dire that the UN threatened to withdraw the park's biosphere status if the Spanish government did not act swiftly to save it. Mr Rodriguez was heartbroken. "I thought the park was finished," he said. "I was going to have to migrate like the birds."

But after tottering on the brink of destruction just two years ago, the Tablas de Daimiel is now thriving. It came back to life thanks to record winter rainfall and €50m worth of emergency measures from the Spanish Ministry of the Environment, including a pipeline to transfer water from a river 92 kilometres away, 24 wells for emergency pumping, and purchases of surrounding land to buy back water rights from farmers.

Now nearly all of park is again covered with water. As many as 10,000 pairs of birds made their nests there. Over the year, more than 80 different species stopped to feed among the reeds. "It's extraordinary," said Olga Baniandrés, director of the state agency for national parks. "We've had a breath of air in a critical situation, and now we must keep working to consolidate the recovery."

The latest symbol of the resuscitation, the red-knobbed coot, Spain's most endangered bird, has reappeared. Two pairs of the rare water-fowl have been spotted. "They're nesting," Mr Rodriguez saidd. "I was watching the chicks just today." The park is also back on the tourist map with a record of 400,000 visitors in 2010, admiring the park's famed ducks, the red-crested pochard, feeding in the lagoons.

But environmental groups are not popping champagne corks yet. They say the government rescue is merely a plaster to cure a deep wound. Irrigation farming, the main cause of the park's decline, continues as it did when it caused the park's brush with near-destruction in 2009, and it even receives backing from the regional government, they say. So when the next cycle of drought hits, and dry winds will surely return to this unforgiving, sun-parched land that wore out poor Sancho Panza and steed Rosinante, the park will suffer again, though not as much as before.

"The only thing that worked was the rain," said Miguel Ángel Hernández of Ecologists in Action. And the park no longer functions as it did naturally, through flooding from an underground reservoir, environmentalists charge. Even the government's emergency fix, they say, merely amounts to life-support.

"The park is still in intensive care, kept alive by artificial means," said Alberto Fernandez, Water Policy Officer for Adena, the Spanish branch of the World Wildlife Fund. "This is the most altered of all of Spain's national parks. It's a farce, a duck pond." For millennia, the Tablas de Daimiel collected water from two sources: a nearby river and the overflow of a large underground reservoir, or aquifer. But since the 1980s, farmers have tapped into this aquifer to irrigate their grains and grapes. They extract nearly all of the water each year, about a third without a permit, says Mr Fernandez, who reported the problem to the UN Biosphere committee. He said the regional government has sold twice as many permits as available water. "The administration didn't do their maths, and now we have a serious problem," he said.

To replenish the aquifer, the government has spent €20m since 2004 to purchase surrounding land and buy-back water-rights from farmers, according to Ms Baniandrés. But the aquifer still does not overflow through its natural spout. Without that underground water, the park and its winged inhabitants depend on the river, which dwindles in drought. And the region suffered many severe droughts in the past decade. By 2009, the wetlands were reduced to only 17 acres, down from 4,000 acres, Mr Rodriguez said. The Tablas de Daimiel became so parched that the ground started to crack, exposing the layer of peat below. That organic lining, accumulated over 300,000 years, is the reason why this marshland seems to spring magically amid the arid plains, like a Don Quixote hallucination. It acts as an underground raincoat, preventing water from seeping into the ground. It is also highly combustible.

And so, ignited by air and heat, the peat burned without flames for months underground. The government workers had to toil delicately to isolate and cool it without destroying the area. Then the state had to clean up the "invading" vegetation that was overtaking the dried-up wetlands, so it would not rot when the park was covered with water again. "It looked like a grey desert with smoke in the sky and ash all over," Guillermo Reim, an expert in flameless, subsoil fires, told El País at the time. "It was hard to believe this was a national park." That's why the government set up a system to prevent the swamp from getting so dry again. It laid tubes to divert water from a river and dug wells, like the farmers, to pump water from the underground reservoir that once flooded the park on its own.

"This is a guarantee that the peat will always be wet and it will never self-ignite again," Ms Baniadrés said. But the emergency measures weren't needed for very long. Because then came the rains, the biggest deluge since 1946. It poured from December to April of 2010, and this winter it poured again.

The algae were the first to return, Mr Rodriguez, the tour guide, recalled. Life seemed to blossom all at once after that. "The birds almost fell from the sky," he said.

The Tablas de Daimiel still do not resemble the glory days of his youth, when his beloved marbled teals and white-headed ducks fed amid the spiky endangered sedge grass, and tourists compared the park's beauty to Africa.

But this year, 500 red-crested pochards have returned, Mr Rodriguez said. He has also found 10 pairs of squacco herons nesting for the first time in eight years. He has spotted more than 30 purple heron. Even an osprey, which usually nests on the Spanish coast or Balearic s, recently paid a visit.

Mr Rodriguez hopes the wet weather continues. "Remember, the birds come from so far away, and every year they promise to come back, whether or not there is water," he said. "We can't disappoint them."

World's wetland wonders

The Everglades

America's best-known wetland is unique because its water comes directly from rainfall. Despite successful conservation efforts (such as saving the American alligator from extinction in the 1980s) the Everglades National Park in Florida remains under threat from the state's fast-growing population, which drains too much water from the area.


Spread across Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil, the world's largest contiguous wetland, at 210.000 sq km, is 20 times the size of the Everglades. Local wildlife includes capuchin monkeys, caimans and endangered jaguars.


It takes almost nine months for Angolan rainfall to reach Botswana's Okavango Delta – the world's largest inland delta. The flood's slow pace is due to a flat landscape, which only drops 60 metres across 450 kilometres. Over 95 per cent of the water eventually evaporates when it finally reaches the Kalahari desert.


More than 400 Bengal tigers live in the Sunderbans, or the "beautiful jungle", which sprawls across Bangladesh and into the Indian state of West Bengal. The Sunderbans is the world's largest delta and mangrove forest.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
The John Peel Lecture has previously been given by Pete Townshend of The Who, Billy Bragg and Charlotte Church
musicGodfather of punk will speak on 'free music in a capitalist society'
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments