In the south of Spain, unsustainable water use is threatening Doñana National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Europe’s most important wetlands. Located southwest of Seville, the Park supports millions of migratory birds and is a stronghold of the endangered Iberian lynx.
It’s been a long-standing problem; a European Commission assessment found that Spanish authorities have not complied with European Union (EU) water legislation, prompting a formal notice in October 2014. As of April of this year, the breaches had not been remedied, and the Commission urged Spain “to stop the deterioration of natural habitats in the area around the Doñana National Park home to several Natura 2000 sites – resulting mainly from the overexploitation of aquifers.”
“We have been warning for many years about the poor water management in Doñana, a problem that is taking to the verge of collapse the ecosystems of this World Heritage site, and jeopardizing the future of agriculture itself in the area,” said WWF-Spain CEO Juan Carlos del Olmo.
WWF claims that more than 1,000 illegal boreholes are draining the aquifer that feeds the wetland to water crops. Most of Spain’s strawberry industry is located in the region, and unfortunately, the strawberry farms are largely to blame for the misuse of water. Companies including Unilever, Sainsbury’s, M&S, and Coca-Cola are among those who have joined the call for better water management in the area.
Innocent Drinks, a United Kingdom-based smoothie company, found that it had a supplier contributing to the problem and wanted to help address the issue directly rather than find suppliers elsewhere. “It’s part of our core values to try and leave things a little better than we found them. We also believe small actions can make a big difference,” Jessica Sansom, the company’s head of sustainability, told The Guardian.
From 2010 to 2012, the company worked in partnership with its supplier and Unilever to map the water footprint and efficiency of a number of strawberry farms over a three-year period. The project identified opportunities to reduce water use through improving water efficiency and water management on strawberry farms.
Based on the findings, Innocent Drinks next worked with the University of Cordoba to trial variations of short-pulse irrigation systems, which are considered to be the most efficient irrigation systems for strawberries while remaining cost-effective for farmers to install. In 2014, they began farmer workshops to train them in best practice water management and encourage them to reduce their water use.
The company has since created an app called Irri-Fresa that calculates optimal daily irrigation times. In 2015, participating farmers using the app saved 1.7 billion litres – cutting water use by up to 40 percent on their farms.
Sansom said it was difficult to get buy-in from the farmers because their water costs are so low, but that making the case that they would save on energy, fertilizer and labor costs by reducing water use, as well as sponsoring tours of Doñana, helped get them on board. “Farmers are passionate about protecting it,” Sansom said.
Innocent Drinks is a relatively small buyer of strawberries, but The Guardian reports that the company has contacted larger buyers in the region – including Unilever, Sainsbury’s, M&S, and Coca-Cola (Coca-Cola invested in Innocent Drinks in 2009 and 2013) – to expand the reach of its techniques and the app.