The park that came back from the dead

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

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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.

Pantanal

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.

Okavango

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.

Sunderbans

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.

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