The Delta of life which flees from death
We were taught to fear nature, to put up barriers, conquer and dominate it. We canalize rivers between great blocks of concrete, bury streams and cover them with tarmac, slopes, embankments and dykes which are strengthened each winter. We are worried that rivers will burst their banks and flood our houses. We are frightened that a storm will remind us that we are just one tiny spec in the ecosystem, but as such, we must suffer severe weather conditions, like gales, strong winds in the valley and rising water levels due to melting ice.
The Ebro runs into cities and furiously lashes out at any barriers we try to put in its way, five metres of rage and melting ice flow through Zaragoza. Chaos is unleashed in a river which damages and pushes through defenses, flooding fields and farms, destroying homes and causing feelings of great unease.
However, the wild river Ebro takes on another form as it reaches its final destination. Calm and wide, it flows gracefully along the last stretch, where the last few kilometres transform its fury into peace and quiet, into life and spectacle. Infinite rice fields with their ears of rice fluttering gently as the river passes by, where birds take flight, so majestically free. The Ebro estuary is the last gift of a whole lifetime, where it leaves fragments of past stories in the sea, with memories of its birth in Cantabria and its growth in Castilla y León, La Rioja, Euskadi, Navarra and Aragón, until its final rest in the south of Catalonia, where it becomes a poem, and the poem becomes a song of outstretched wings and water which flows tirelessly. Life takes shape before you, from the windows of Swarovski observatory you can watch terns feed their young, the slow walk of young, still white flamingos, swamphens racing through the rice fields at Riet Vell and the odd little bittern hiding among the reeds, only to be seen by the most avid observer. Everything here is life, each drop of water in the canals plays a part in reaping the harvest, to the constant waking of pairs of birds, always moving around to feed their young. Everything is in constant movement in this SEO/BirdLife reserve. And everything is changing. Although we aren’t able to see these changes at first sight, there is a small step backwards, which escapes us, but which is slowly but surely taking its first victims.
Standing straight before the sea
Let’s take a trip back in time to 1864 when the Tortosa headland was first lit up. This had been a place which was feared because of its dangerous shallow waters caused by huge sandbanks, and now it was no longer in darkness, how? Well, all because of a large foreign built lighthouse. The highest at that time, standing at 51 metres tall, and which was included (by means of a model) at an International Exhibition in Paris in 1867.
It was a huge sensation and a reference for inhabitants of Buda Island and the surrounding areas, who came to spend their days off enjoying picnics and games at the foot of the lighthouse. In appearance it looked like a mere skeleton of a conventional lighthouse, but those who knew it remember it as “our Eiffel Tower”.
The incredible size of the lighthouse was in response to a necessity. The Delta was growing considerably each year and locals were worried that a smaller lighthouse would be left too far from the sea. A light which wasn’t bright enough or was too far from the coast wouldn’t work as it wouldn’t warn sailors of the sandbanks.
However, history was about to change. The industrial revolution at the beginning of the twentieth century, the increase in the size of cities and the change in water needs brought about the construction of the first dams in tributaries of the Ebro. By the fifties, almost a hundred dams had been built along the Ebro.
The construction of dams halted the arrival of sediment to the Ebro Delta, which consequently started to lose 34 metres of land per year. It was Christmas Eve in 1961 when the enormous lighthouse at Buda Island, weighing 187 tonnes, fell onto the sea bed. This was to be its last storm.
Its replacement also sank, just four years later.
Today the remains of the huge lighthouse are 10 metres below sea level and 4km from the coast, lying out at open sea.
The Ebro Delta: damaged but still standing
The old lighthouse and its sinking are testimony to what is lying in wait for the Delta. The building of large dams means less sediment. With no new matter being brought down, the erosive action of the sea washes the sand off the coast and wears it away constantly.
Inhabitants of delta villages are at war with this, and demand a guarantee that the Ebro is allowed to flow ecologically down to the estuary (10% of its historical average). Less water flow would mean an increase in erosive action if materials dragged away by the sea are not replaced.
The Ebro Delta is extremely important in terms of biodiversity.
“It is home to 316 common bird species and around 360 registered birds of the 600 existing in Europe”, stated Cristian Jensen in 2010. The presence of birds is linked to human interaction with the environment, which is becoming more and more responsible, and which makes the coexistence of human and natural factors easier in such a way that conservation work, agricultural and fishing work, as well as activities related to tourism, are developed in a balanced way with regards to the environment.
When we speak of conservation of the Ebro Delta it means we should reach a balance which is focused on conserving places used for the reproduction and breeding of birds, preserving wetlands and surrounding areas, avoid over exploiting of resources for agriculture, promote the development and use of clean energy and stop abandoning terrain so that we can control the erosion of land. This balance is fragile and difficult to reach, as it could easily be broken and any change has its consequences. However, when we speak of conserving such an important place as is the Delta all the effort we make is little. Allowing all of this to disappear would mean a great loss for the planet and it would simply be impossible to rebuild or repair the damage it could do. We are still in time to combine our efforts and stop the Delta from eroding and help in consolidating it as a natural area which is full of life. It is a hive of activity, which is within your reach, which folds open before your eyes, which is so close and goes on as for far as the eye can see…or to the point where your binoculars reach.
Teresa Monteagudo Tejedor, volunteer at Riet Vell