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 Asunto: A Critical Position About Desertification In Spain
NotaPublicado: Mar Dic 20, 2011 11:55 am 
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Ubicación: Reino de la Araucanía y Patagonia - España - Argentina
Ecologistas en Acción escribió:
Myth and reality about desertification in Spain

In Spain, desertification has been mainly associated with erosion, especially with erosion in environmental areas without tree cover or dry or semi-dry climate. However, this identification cannot be supported any longer due to increasing evidences which prove that the principal desertification causes in Spain are others.

Desertification is not really a result of erosion problems in the environment because most of the erosion rates assessed in these areas - many of these areas are still in use - are considerably over-estimated due to the use of inappropriate methods which underestimate the thicket role - including in dry areas- or take no account of processes such as sedimentation. Moreover, identifying aridity with desertification has reinforced the erroneous perception of naming natural thicket (steppes, salt-affected soils in alluvial plains – called saladares-, dry ecosystems, natural badlands, etc.) ‘degraded areas’, which makes even more difficult its conservation (e.g. turning them into recipients of industrial estates, rubbish tips or infrastructures), which leads to an alarming landscape quality and environmental loss. In addition, this false image has justified a terrible forest policy, full of inadequate reafforestation processes, which damaged habitats of Communitarian concern and communities with high ecological and natural value, and it also damaged their biodiversity value (Martínez Fernández y Esteve, 2005; Martínez Fernández y Esteve, 2006).

We cannot forget that erosion is a process that sometimes appears naturally and sometimes constitutes one more negative impact associated with various human activities, from inadequate farming practices, ski slopes construction, forest fires to roads construction, and as such, it should be considered when we analyse globally the negative impacts of these activities.

In Spain, the principal soil erosion problems are localised in agricultural areas, because of inappropriate farming practices - such as working the soil of marginal areas at the bottom of mountains- over loose material and steep slopes, where European subventions have promoted some crops expansion like olive and almond trees in completely inadequate areas. Another source of erosion problems is the proliferation of huge greenhouses extensions in the coastal mountains of the east where, along with the occupation of natural habitats impacts, active processes of erosion are produced together with big land movements, which are sometimes similar to those done in a quarry. All these problems have provoked scarce preoccupation among the authorities. The same can be said about the active processes of erosion caused by infrastructure such as spread out roads, highways or high-speed train railways.

The main desertification problems are due to different erosion processes, such as unsustainable use of water and irreversible loss of fertile ground on account of built-up areas and infrastructure construction. Regarding the water use, the enormous increase of irrigated crops and more recently the accelerated town-planning –tourist expansion have provoked an unsustainable water use and a serious overexploitation of aquifers, provoking wetlands destruction and irreversible natural productivity loss on these high valuable landscapes linked to water. An irreversible loss that constitutes an important desertification process, which is not considered as it should really be by the public authorities.

Concerning the fertile ground loss, we must stress that the processes which are really causing a great loss of fertile ground, which is a high-valuable non-renewable natural resource, is not erosion but built-up areas and the irreversibly occupation of fluvial valleys, traditional irrigated crops and other high valuable farming ground, due to the town planning-tourist expansion as well as roads construction and every kind of buildings and infrastructure. In 1992, Spain was the most affected European country by irreversible loss of fertile ground due to built-up areas (Commission of the European Communities, 1992). In addition, Spain is the country where this fertile and high valuable farming ground is the scarcest and where the annual loss rate because of built-up areas is the biggest, which makes worse the consequences of this fertile ground irreversible loss, which is with no doubt the principal desertification concern in Spain.

Nowadays, this worrying process is seriously accelerating, helped by a generalized town-planning speculation which is destroying irreversibly the most fertile and best quality farming ground. It is very curious and contradictory, the apparent preoccupation with possible erosion in low quality farming areas, like natural areas with marl, when the real fertile ground from agricultural valleys are disappearing irreversibly and exponentially because of the already commented soil classification fever and construction, which does not attract such a special preoccupation.

In order to hold back the processes that lead to desertification in Spain, new land, town planning and economic laws are needed. Specifically, a land law is required to guarantee the ground conservation and make difficult the soil classification as building land in those cases in which it is not strictly necessary so as to satisfy population growth needs and always following a Mediterranean compact city model. Furthermore, we need a water policy based on managing its demand and not on increasing its supply, treating water as the scarce good it is and which must be highly protected. We also need to change the Spanish economic model which is currently based on environment destruction, in which construction and mass tourism (both very linked to desertification) are essential keys for the GDP. In the building policy terms, this is translated into compact towns of medium size; in hydroelectric energy terms, into a kind of respectful agriculture with the surrounding climatic conditions.

We proceed to describe synthetically the main implications of different sectorial activities, such as town-planning, farming and water management, in relation with desertification.

Urban development and desertification

Built-up areas and construction are the main causes of land irreversible destruction and transformation - including fertile ground areas- and as we referred above this constitutes the principal desertification problem in Spain. According to the “Observatorio de la Sostenibilidad de España (the Spanish Observatory for sustainability)”, 70% of new artificial areas development (urban areas and infrastructure) has been realized in agricultural areas and to a lesser extent in forests. There were 581,116 ha. in 1987 and 661,300 ha. in 2000 (Observatorio de la Sostenibilidad de España, 2006a). An important issue we should keep in mind is that the discontinuous and residential soils (loose texture soil and built-up areas) occupy almost the same surface (320,418 ha.) than traditional continuous and urban soils (340,882 ha.).

Sprawled cities model, which is currently being promoted, requires a bigger communication infrastructure net and bigger water use than the ones in a compact city. The water use of a house in a sprawled cities model is 516 m3/year, compared to 75 m3/year used in a block of 50 flats (according to the Green Building Challenge). Therefore, the sprawled cities model favours an unsustainable water use, which is another main cause of desertification in Spain. In addition, water demand is increased on account of the resort model where scattered buildings are linked to extensive sport installations which consume a lot of water, such as golf courses. This resort model is more frequent in the Mediterranean area with scarce water resources, but is spreading over the centre, north and even some mountain areas of Spain.

Besides, we have to add to the direct occupation of new areas, the necessity of creating new infrastructure for transport, water and energy supply, which generates additional problems which will be commented below. Moreover, we should add the problems coming from the needed mining activity to provide construction materials (concrete, dry goods, rock and stone). Regarding the concrete use, it has increased 140% between 1987 and 2004. Concrete production is related to an intense mining activity that causes an irreversible transformation of natural areas.

Despite the apparent real estate cooling, the truth is that planning for residential areas is growing frenetically in some areas, as these data show: Murcia: 500,000 new dwellings in 30 years; Costa del Sol: 540,000 new dwellings; Galicia: 600,000 new dwellings in the next 5-10 years; Castilla la Mancha: 700,000 new dwellings in 15-20 years; Asturias: 30,000 new dwellings near the coast; La Rioja: 9,000 new dwellings linked to 5 golf courses resorts; in Extremadura until now 7 big city projects have been presented which will occupy meadow next to several reservoirs; in Madrid region, 1,000,000 new dwellings are foreseen among re-classified soils and proposals which are being processed. We should not forget the soil loss problems in relation with specific tourist projects such as new ski resorts and ski slopes extensions: in the Pyrenees, those resorts and extensions are provoking important erosion processes in highlands, which is also affecting several rivers sources.

The main consequence of this huge activity is and will be the irreversible loss of soil, including fertile and high valuable farming ground which we should bear in mind is a non-renewable natural resource, as well as the increase of water resources over-exploitation and the apparition of new erosion processes in vulnerable areas such as mountain areas and steep slopes.

Transport infrastructure and loss of fertile ground

Infrastructure construction, above all highways or high-speed train railways, provokes a direct strong impact over the landscape, over the ecosystems and the species (fragmentation, barrier effect), as well as noise, water flow alteration, increasing of the greenhouse effect gases emissions, etc. Another impact is their contribution to fertile ground loss, since they transform irreversibly the soil.

Built-up areas and infrastructure construction, especially roads, are close connected, strengthening each other and supposing important cumulative impacts. New roads increase some areas accessibility, originating an increase of building pressure which progressively provokes more pressure to construct more roads. Another example is the airport infrastructure, where low cost companies are increasing travellers number which is raising tourist demand and is linked to built-up areas.

More than 20% of the total Spanish territory has been turned into artificial between 1987-2000 due to highways construction (Observatorio de la Sostenibilidad de España 2006a) and this dynamics has sped between 2000 and 2005 (Observatorio de la Sostenibilidad de España 2006a). The main responsible for this process are highways – whose soil occupation increase is 149%- . With no doubt, roads are one of the biggest consumers of fertile ground.

Though the Corine Land Robert project has only evaluated the soil occupied by high-capacity ways (motorways), these roads constitute only a little percentage of the total (13,156 km of motorways out of 165,646 km). In addition to these roads, town halls have 489,698 km. (data from 1998), from them 361,517 km are intercity. The complete length of the intercity roads net is 538,547 km (Spanish Ministry of Public Works, 2005a). The assessment of occupied and destroyed soil because of these roads could be hair-raising.

If we take into account the huge artificial soil growth owing to these high-capacity roads between 1987 (when there were 3,500 km of motorways) and 2000 (when there were 10,443 km), we can imagine what it will be these 13,156 km of roads in 2005 added to 6,000 new kilometres of motorways foreseen in the PEIT - Spanish Strategic plan for infrastructure and transport- (Ministry of Public Works, 2005b), and the new roads developed by the Comunidades Autonomas (Spanish Regional Authorities), which are getting an increasing role in high-capacity roads construction. The PEIT also presents a great increase of another fertile ground-eater: high-speed trains. The PEIT foretells to build 9,000 km of new high-speed train railways, whose construction characteristics suppose a wide strip occupation. Thus the PEIT devotes a considerable part of its budget precisely to develop the most harmful infrastructure for land. With a total budget of 248,892 million euros, the PEIT delivers 33.5% to develop these new 9,000 km. of high-speed train railways and 12.9% to these new 6,000 km of motorways.

We should remember that often this lineal infrastructure is designed taking advantage of the best agricultural land (meadow), which is why its impact on losing fertile ground is even more serious. Furthermore, this infrastructure is not justified with the view of making transport more free-flowing: most of these new motorways are designed over itineraries which do not cover half the needed traffic to justify widening the carriageway.

The best strategy to fight against desertification and particularly against fertile ground loss passes by abolishing the PEIT and establishing new bases for a sustainable mobility, whilst the disproportionate urban development is held back. We should not forget about the regional authorities’ responsibility, since they share some obsolete and unsustainable criteria on transport infrastructure development with the Spanish Ministry of Public Works at this moment in time.

Water and desertification

An inadequate water management can favour desertification, and in fact this is what is happening to some extent in most of Spain. The high water use, which in certain parts of Spain is higher than the renewable available resources, is producing aquifers over-exploitation as well as reducing drastically the volume of shallow water flow. It has frequently caused important drops in water table, and in shallower levels it has caused the disappearance of sources, springs, brooks, streams and wet land, which constitutes with no doubt a clear evidence of desertification, which is defined as the degradation or irreversible reduction of the natural productivity of a territory. It is obvious that the degradation or elimination of ecosystems linked to water constitutes a serious reduction of their natural productivity. Moreover, over-exploitation is provoking reduction or exhaustion of the aquifers water reserves, which supposes the loss of a strategic resource: the non-renewable underground water.

In order to alleviate and invert this situation, we consider necessary the adoption of the following measures:
- In all the over-exploited aquifers, or in the ones where the water extraction is superior to the natural recharge, it should be suspended any extraction, except for human use in homes and if other alternatives are not possible, until getting again the water balance in the aquifer.
- Considering the sources, springs, river beds and wet land under public control, according to the Water Law the necessary measures shall be taken to avoid a natural water level reduction, or in order to get back their balance, water extraction and use shall be reduced in other points where the aquifer is connected.
- Fiscal and water cost/price management measures must be implemented with the aim of fining excessive water use in agriculture, tourism and towns, considering the concessions revision or even reversion in the cases where this situation lasts too much.

Forestry, agriculture and desertification

The Spanish Forestry police, focused on wood production from the 60s on, has generated enormous erosion problems. Terraced hillsides, forestry tracks and huge firebreaks, as well as monocultures of inadequate species for our relief and climate, provoked in little time the loss of huge amount of fertile ground accumulated with the passing of centuries.

Recently, the most serious errors of this policy have been corrected, recognizing the necessity of giving priority to the protective task of forests and the respect to the natural vegetation. Notwithstanding, forest management continues being an essential cause of soil loss in many regions: oversize nets of wood extraction tracks and fire control, cutting down extremely (followed by waste burns for example in the case of eucalyptus), clearances and firebreaks that throw off great amounts of land in steep slopes, as well as indigenous vegetation elimination and tree planting continue being some of environmental destroyers paradoxically funded with environment protection funds. Frequently, reafforestation for water protection in reservoir basins is also provoking soil and hillside vegetation alterations, increasing even more erosion and silting.

Besides, the increasing mechanization and agrochemical use in farming and the tendency to intensive monoculture, sometimes in steep slopes, have raised erosion problems originated by this activity in the last decades. We find the paradox of tree cultures that should contribute to protecting soils, like olive cultures, and which are occupying vast even surfaces invading high-ecological value areas, whose soils remain naked most of the year – because of working or herbicide treatments – and exposed to strong season rains.

Though public authorities are placing increasing importance on this issue and since 2001 agro-environmental measures include among their objectives: fight against erosion and improvement of farming soil structure and fertility, the agricultural policy continues favouring productive specialization and intensification and the use of toxic agrochemical and heavy agricultural machinery, with very negative impacts - sometimes irreversible- over the soil. Furthermore, programs of plot concentration continue eliminating systematically bushes, walls and other rural landscape elements that contribute to holding back erosion and diversifying ecosystems. Moreover, excessive construction of disproportionate tracks and paths usually provoke huge loss of soil. The application of measures to combat erosion - in some regions these measures include herbicide use on a large scale – can contribute to degrading the soil on a short term, on damaging the essential biological balance for its fertility. This massive use of herbicides, applied over amphibians and insects in critical periods, also supposes a serious damage against biodiversity and therefore their promotion as beneficial measure for the environment is inadmissible. This situation is especially inadmissible because of the existence of known and used alternatives in ecological farming and traditional systems which unfortunately are today almost abandoned.

Forest fire


Big forest fires constitute a serious environmental problem since they contribute to degrading the environment, especially when their extension or recurrence is very high. Regarding the total burnt extension, forest fires and burnt surface in Spain globally exceed the natural capacity of regeneration, thus their consequences in the medium- and long-term result worrying.

Highly recurrent forest fires are also an important degradation agent of soil and vegetation. Just after a fire, the soil is unprotected because it has lost its vegetal cover and is very vulnerable to possible heavy rains, which could give rise to a serious erosion process. If fires are very frequent in an area, the probability of heavy rains following the fire will multiply. Regarding vegetation, recurrent forest fires favour opportunist and fire-resistant species, which may even eliminate less-adapted species, which leads to a biodiversity reduction as well as reducing unique habitats in favour of more common species.

Climate conditions in most of Spain – which is worsened by the increasingly evident effects of the climate change- facilitate frequent and harmful forest fires. Despite this fact, almost 95% of them are caused by humans. In Spain, 53.65% of forest fires – with known cause and motive- are due to fire use to clear thicket and provide pasture and fresh sprouts to livestock, as well as to eliminate agricultural wastes. Permissiveness and lack of control over these activities have favoured fires every year.

In the last 7 years (2000 – 2006), an average of 20,776 forest fires has been assessed every year, which is higher than the one assessed during the 80s and 90s. In this period, forest fires burnt 1,009,239 ha. of forests, which is 3.9% of the total forest surface and almost 2% of the total Spanish territory. This area is similar to that of Navarra Region.

The north and north-east of Spain are the most affected areas by forest fires (in terms of accumulate burnt surface between 1996 and 2005), although according to the Convention to Combat Desertification these areas are excluded from desertification risk because of their climate. The Mediterranean area also shows the fire effects, and fires of more than 500 ha. were produced very often particularly here and in the border with Portugal. A considerable part of Spain corresponds to areas with more than 10% of their surface burnt, which gives an idea of the problem size, above all if we take into account that certain areas have scarce vegetal cover that could be burnt. Likewise, if we consider the number of fires independently of their extension, the Mediterranean coast presents higher frequencies – more than 40 fires per 10,000 ha. , which is only comparable with Galicia and the Middle Duero-.

Another cause of fertile ground loss linked to forest fires comes from some forest infrastructures for preventing forest fires such as excessive and unnecessary firebreaks and tracks. Firebreaks eliminate all vegetal cover, the first organic soil layer and arrive at the mineral soil layer, sometimes that is worsened because they are realized in steep slopes and watercourses, which increases non natural erosion phenomena. As far as forest tracks are concerned, they also provoke fertile ground loss due to erosion processes like clearances and cutting down realized to create them.

Ecologistas en Acción therefore proposes:

- To cut using fire in the environment (forest waste burns, burns to get pasture, barbecues…) the whole year and prohibit it in high risk periods.
- To investigate the causes of all forest fires, taking special care in those areas with high recurrence, providing the necessary means and facilitating the responsible teams’ coordination.
When needed, to realize after the fire some soil protection measures and vegetal cover restoration.
- To prevent forest tracks construction when they are not enough justified.
- To prevent new towns in forest area because that supposes new fires and increases the risk for people and goods as well as hindering fire extinguishing, because the fire extinguishing teams must focus on save people and homes, abandoning sometimes to put out the forest fire.

World desertification: a resources overexploitation problem strengthened by globalization.

At the international level, desertification is closed linked to the economic globalization processes. World economy has generated a regional production specialization, where the South should focus on exploiting its natural resources and agricultural production. Moreover, these countries are under increasing pressure to get foreign currency so that they can pay their foreign debt, attract inversions or simply, be reliable in the international financial world. Therefore, the South does not only exploit its resources, but these countries do it beyond their sustainable limits.

South products are enjoyed in the North, which generates an enormous ecological debt from the North to the South. This debt has as effect the fertility loss in the periphery. For instance, wood exploitation to get land for other uses (most of them for farming) or for being worked is closely linked to fertile ground loss processes in temperate forests. This is due to the fact that the fertility in this forest is mainly kept in plants, and when the soil losses its vegetal cover, it also losses its fertility shortly afterwards. That is why it is necessary to cut down another piece of forest to continue the productive process.

Another paradigmatic cause of fertile ground loss is the farming overexploitation, which is associated with overuse of pesticides, synthetic manure, water and machinery. All this produces soil and water exhaustion and pollution, and increasing erosion, which generates fertility loss.

Current international predatory capitalism also promotes an increasing motorised mobility and energy use, both main causes of climate change, which lead to desertification worldwide. Predictions about how the climate is going to evolve show an increment of extreme meteorological phenomena such as droughts and torrential rains. Furthermore, climate change will suppose more evaporation and less drinking water availability in many areas of the planet during summer, which could worsen water management which is already unsustainable in many areas and as commented, could give rise to important desertification processes, such as aquifers exhaustion, water flows elimination and degradation of wetland and other landscapes linked to water.

Finally, urban development described for Spain can be applied to the international level, with the same bad consequences for the soil. We consider necessary to promote other exchange relations and policies worldwide and driving economic globalization towards a system based on local production and consumption in harmony with the environment. This production must fulfil the ecological farming criteria and respect the natural cycles. It is equally needed to reduce energy use so that climate change effects can be reduced as much as possible.

References
1. Martínez Fernández, J. Esteve Selma, M.A. 2006. Desertificación en España: una perspectiva crítica. El Ecologista 48: 40-42.

2. Martínez Fernández, J.; Esteve, M.A. 2005. A critical view of the desertification debate in Southeastern Spain. Land Degradation & Development 16: 529-539.

3.Comisión de las Comunidades Europeas 1992. Programa Comunitario de Política y Actuación en materia de Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo Sostenible. COM(92) 23 FINAL. Instituto de Investigaciones Ecológicas. Madrid.

4.Observatorio de la Sostenibilidad en España. 2006: Sostenibilidad en España 2006. Ediciones Mundiprensa. Madrid.

5.Observatorio de la Sostenibilidad en España, 2006: Cambios de ocupación del suelo en España. Implicaciones para la sostenibilidad

6. Ministerio de Fomento. 2005a. Anuario Estadístico de Fomento de 2005. Consultable en http://www.fomento.es

- Ecologistas en Acción.

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 Asunto: Re: A Critical Position About Desertification In Spain
NotaPublicado: Lun Sep 15, 2014 2:17 pm 
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Registrado: Sab Dic 17, 2005 3:22 am
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Ubicación: Reino de la Araucanía y Patagonia
What will we do when human population doubles? Will there be enough resources? What about an increase in the number and magnitude of war and other kinds of conflict? all that will surely have an impact on our environment so, is it really desirable to continue this population growth trend?

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