How healthy are Europe's waterways and tap water? Around half of Europe's rivers, lakes and coastal waters contain hazardous substances. Human activities threaten entire populations and ecosystems. Euronews reporter Monica Pinna went to Spain to look for clues.
Contaminated tap water in Zamora
Zamora in Spain is just one of several provinces where tap water is contaminated. Emilia is from there. She has traveled through the region over the past year to regularly measure the amount of nitrate in drinking water and groundwater sources.
I accompanied her on one of her missions to the village of Santovenia. There she checks the tap water of her friend Sonsoles. She is a member of the residents' network set up by Greenpeace to monitor water quality in rural Spain. And she's the one who got a nitrate meter for this district.
"We use this small device to take three measurements," says Emilia Román, provincial coordinator of the Pueblos Vivos residents' association. "You put the tap water in here and you can read the result at the other end."
The three measurements were all above the legal limit. Emilia and Sonsoles are concerned because high levels of nitrates combined with other substances can increase the risk of miscarriage, birth defects and even cancer. They are angry because they know who is to blame.
"It is very clear what pollutes the water. It is intensive agriculture and those who dump their manure on the fields," says Sonsoles. "The nitrates from the manure get into the groundwater and pollute it."
The problem of pig fattening systems
Water pollution has become a national scandal. Locals accuse the authorities of inaction and take to the streets against large-scale pig fattening facilities almost every week.
"The mega-plants are an invasion, that's the problem. In Zamora there are 600,000 pigs. That's unacceptable. It's not a sustainable industry," says Luís de Nicolás Latorre, spokesman for the Tierra de Alba residents' association.
Castile and León is one of the twenty largest pig farming areas in Europe. Spain is the largest pork exporter in Europe. In some areas, pigs outnumber residents.
No farmer was willing to talk to us. Together with a Greenpeace representative, I researched how the liquid manure is disposed of. The corresponding facilities in Zamora are easy to spot.
"The manure produced by the animals is collected in these tanks and then spread on the neighboring fields," explains Luís Ferreirim, Greenpeace Spain's Agriculture Campaign Manager. "When the soil can't absorb any more, the excrement gets into the groundwater and contaminates it."
Water pollution by nitrates
This practice is common and legal in Spain. The problem is the scale.
"The laws are very lax," continued Luís: "Permits are issued without there being a complete overview of what is happening in the ground."
In some of Spain's main pig farming regions, nitrate levels in groundwater were found to be up to four times higher than the legal limit of 50 milligrams per liter. While this remains the exception, lower exceedances are common. According to Greenpeace, according to official figures, 23% of Spanish groundwater and 22% of surface water are polluted by nitrates.
According to the activist group, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Greenpeace has involved local residents in water monitoring to increase the number and frequency of measurements. The results are worrying.
"In 2000, around 60 municipalities in the region of Castilla y León were affected by nitrate pollution. Currently there are more than 700. It doesn't just affect this region," says the activist. "In Catalonia, 40 percent of the underground aquifers are completely polluted with nitrates."
Spain: insufficient measures against nitrate pollution
The EU has taken Spain to the European Court of Justice for failing to get nitrate pollution under control. Intensive agriculture is blamed for this, as is animal husbandry. An example of this is the environmental disaster in the Mar Menor.
Almost every morning Los Nietos beach is raked on the saltwater lagoon to keep too much seaweed from rotting on the shore. In the summer, this task becomes almost impossible. The algae grow uncontrollably, nourished by nitrates from the surrounding agriculture.
This process, known as eutrophication, led to disaster in 2019 and last year, with tons of dead fish washing ashore. The images shocked the world. But they were also a call to action.
I had Pedro and Ramón, an environmentalist and the chairman of a local residents' group, explain the background to me.
"Around the Mar Menor there is intensive agriculture, which leaks nutrients into the lagoon," explains Pedro Luengo, a biologist with the environmental group Ecologistas en Acción. "These fertilizers destabilize the ecosystem and lead to eutrophication, an excessive growth of algae. The sea turns into a 'green soup' in the summer and sometimes kills the fish, as we have seen. The solution has not yet been found, because the solution is in of agriculture."
Not far away is Campo de Cartagena, 60,000 hectares of intensively farmed land surrounding the lagoon. According to Ramón, irrigation is the main cause of the collapse of the Mar Menor.
"This type of intensive agriculture put an end to the terraced fields. This area has become a huge plain that slopes down towards the Mar Menor. Intense rains cause enormous erosion and bring soil and fertilizers to the Mar Menor," said Ramón Pagán, Chairman of the residents group Pacto por el Mar Menor.
The Slow Dying of the Mar Menor
The representative of farmers in Campo de Cartagena believes that agriculture is not the only factor to blame. He added that most farmers have switched to sustainable production methods.
"An intensive farm that is well managed does not cause problems," said Manuel Martínez Madrid, president of the Campo de Cartagena Irrigation Farmers' Association. "There is no reason to believe that it contributes to the poor condition of the Mar Menor. We use less than half the water recommended by the Food and Agriculture Organization and much less fertilizer than recommended. We use the lowest amount of fertilizer in the World."
Yet the data shows that tons of nitrates enter the lagoon every day.
Associations and scientists have been calling on local and national authorities to save the lagoon for years. They complain that their voice is systematically ignored.
The local conservative administration gave me a long list of actions they are carrying out and relegated some responsibilities to the left-wing coalition in Madrid. The fact is that the Mar Menor is tipping over. Scientists say it is possible to save the lagoon, but the longer it takes, the more irreversible the damage will be.