Drought, Doñana and the Queen of the Marshes


Spain's famous biosphere reserve Doñana is being hit by drought and environmental disasters. May was the hottest and driest month ever. Temperatures already hit 45 degrees Celsius in spring and summer will be relentless. There have been droughts in past centuries too, in Andalusia. Then people turned to Our Lady of the Dew or Virgen del Rocío, a tradition still very much alive today. This saint is the Christianized version of a long-forgotten Queen of the Marshes, who has Phoenician roots. As a climate crisis threatens humanity, this veneration may not be as obsolete as it sounds. Let's look at a piece of Spanish mythology from a naturalistic point of view.

Author: Kathelijne Bonne.

I first came across the Queen of the Marshes when I read the book Groeten uit Spanje (Dutch for Greetings from Spain) by Belgian journalist Sven Tuytens, who has family and connections in the Doñana region. The Reina de las Marismas or marsh queen somehow continued to linger in my mind after finishing the book. As I try to stay up to date with the latest climate and earth science news, I noticed that marshes and wetlands receive a lot of attention lately. They can play a crucial role in the fight against climate change and desertification.

Could it be a coincidence that in southern Spain dew and marshes are alive in Spanish traditions, and at the same time, intimately involved in one of the largest pilgrimages in the world? Or do we need a revival of the ancient cult of nature worship in these times of crisis?

Marshes, swamps and wetlands are ecosystems in which the soils are waterlogged for at least a part of the year. Let's find out how special they are and learn about the ancient goddess that stood the test of time in Doñana's marshes.

Smelly Gleysols

The soils beneath swamps are also called Gleysols, they are found all over the world in waterlogged regions. The heavy black mud is full of organic matter and hence very rich in carbon. As the soil is waterlogged, there is little oxygen. When you dig deeper, there is sometimes a blue-grayish color. This is due to the action of anaerobic bacteria, which consume iron oxide, erasing the usually reddish-brown color of most 'dry' soils. Marsh soils also tend to emit an unpleasant smell, caused by a different kind of bacteria that use sulfur for their metabolism, releasing the gas hydrogen sulfide.

Wetlands and carbon dioxide

All ecosystems take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in biomass. But wetlands and marshes do this more efficiently than most other ecosystems. In the oxygen-poor environment, much less oxidation (rotting) takes place, therefore carbon dioxide is not produced. Overall, wetlands are estimated to hold 35% of all carbon on the land, while occupying only 9% of the land surface.

Draining or destroying wetlands will cause the formation and release of carbon dioxide into the air. Therefore, drought is a threat not only to the ecosystem itself, but also in the fight against climate change.

Ancient trails

Pilgrimage of the Dew (Romería del Rocío), marching through Doñana. (Avicentegil/Wikipedia)
Pilgrimage of the Dew (Romería del Rocío), marching through Doñana. (Avicentegil/Wikipedia)

The Doñana National Park lies in the triangle between the beautiful cities of Huelva, Seville and Cadiz, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean. Coincidentally or not, the marshes of Doñana are the backdrop of the huge "pilgrimage of the dew": the Romería del Rocío, in which about a million pilgrims participate. They set off from Sanlúcar de Barrameda and march across Doñana along ancient trails. Parade cars, covered wagons, tractors, people on foot and on horseback, and of course the Our Lady of the Dew herself, who is carried and may only be touched by one fraternity, travel through rice fields and nature. 

The final destination is the El Rocío chapel in the village of the same name. Upon arrival on Pentecost, the festivities erupt. This pilgrimage is only the latest phase, the most recent layer, of the millennia-old cult of a Mother Earth-like figure like the Marshland Queen.

Flamingo (Savi.odl/Wikipedia).
Flamingo (Savi.odl/Wikipedia).

Breeding ground for migratory birds

Doñana is unique in Europe thanks to the great diversity of landscapes that blend together, due to tides, fluctuations in salinity, river and wave action, drought, rain, sun and wind. Beaches, wandering dunes, tidal flats, lagoons, marshes and forests of juniper, cork oak and pine alternate. Doñana is also home to iconic endangered species such as the imperial eagle and the Iberian lynx.

The El Acebuche lagoon (Marc Reykaert/Wikipedia)
The El Acebuche lagoon (Marc Reykaert/Wikipedia)

Until recently the marshes were a temporary home to enormous swarms of migratory birds from Europe and Africa, such as the black-tailed godwit, spoonbill and flamingo. Now their numbers are declining due to drought. In winter and spring, the marshes are flooded and adorned with reeds, flowers and grasses. In summer, they transform into dry flats of cracked clay and salt crusts. In some places fresh water bubbles up from deep layers and form wells where animals gather to quench their thirst.

Iberian lynx in Doñana, one of the last places where this animal still exists in the wild (Diego Delso/Wikipedia).
Iberian lynx in Doñana, one of the last places where this animal still exists in the wild (Diego Delso/Wikipedia).

Secrets between land and sea

The sand dunes transform all the time and also the coastline shifts continuously. Just below sea level are vast meadows of seagrass, another hugely important ecosystem in terms of its capacity to store carbon. From a geological point of view, in Doñana we see an alternation of sand and clay. Sand is brought in from the beaches and dunes. Clay is deposited at the bottom of the marshes and in standing water. 

Somewhere, between those alternating layers of sand and clay, supposedly lie the foundations of the ancient city-state of Tartessos, a trading hub of an Iberian people from the Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago). Tartessos is also a candidate for the never found Atlantis.

And between the marshes and their legendary treasures and secrets, flow majestically the Guadalquivir River.

Tight patchwork

But wait a minute, the Guadalquivir is now far from being majestic. Monstrous is a better description, especially when referring to pollution and overexploitation. The water that normally provides Doñana with its lifeblood comes from this river and from deep aquifers (underground rock layers that hold water). Now this water is diverted to the cultivated parts of the Guadalquivir banks. There, wilderness gives way to a tight patchwork of rice paddies and various industries.

Rice paddy in the "Marismas del Gualdalquivir" (Asterion/Wikipedia).
Rice paddy in the "Marismas del Gualdalquivir" (Asterion/Wikipedia).

Rice and golf

Rice grows well on the watery Gleysols and is one of the economic engines of Andalusia. Lucrative strawberry farms, entirely covered by plastic sheets, require huge amounts of water all year round. Fish farms, some allegedly sustainable, co-adorn the anthropogenic landscape. Tourism and recreation also leave their mark. After all, golf courses have to be immaculate, allowing international businessmen to close deals while hitting the ball, oblivious to the inconvenient truth.

No wonder, then, that Doñana is suffering drought and losing its image as a biodiversity hotspot. Since 2000, 80% of the wetlands and 90% of the lagoons are dry.

Red gold

Greenpeace and WWF report water theft and overexploitation as the biggest threats to ecosystem functioning. Spain has been taken to the European Court of Justice in 2019 for its failure to protect Doñana and its indifference in enforcing European laws on Natura 2000 sites.

In addition to "normal" water consumption for rice production, there is water theft through illegal wells, especially for red fruits such as strawberries, the red gold. Moreover, the region of Andalusia has legalized the wells by the beginning of 2022, to continue selling red fruits all year round to other EU countries and beyond.

Environmentalists also raise the following issues: plans for gas storage and pipelines, illegal dumping of hazardous waste, nitrogen runoff, algal blooms and asphyxiation of aquatic life, seepage of pesticides and antibiotics, invasive dredging operations in the river, increased risk of fire due to poor forest management and drought, introduction of invasive species, and air, light and acoustic pollution.

The Aznalcóllar disaster

Doñana was also hit by Spain's biggest environmental disaster, nearly 25 years ago. In 1998, the dam of the Los Frailes mine failed, near the town of Aznalcóllar, releasing poisonous mining waste full of heavy metals (arsenic, nickel, zinc, cadmium, mercury, lead, uranium, etc.) into nature. The cleanup took three years and had a bill of hundreds of millions of euros. Thousands of plants and animals floated dead on the water.

Sometimes there are still talks of reopening the mine. Wouldn't that be good for the economy?

Drought caused by climate change is also a threat to Doñana. If no action is taken, desertification could become irreversible. Birds, which come to look for water-dependent larvae, are staying away. It is quieter every year. There is less and less cheerful chirping, singing, cooing, quacking and chattering.

In April 2022 a letter was written, a cry for help, by 30 NGOs and addressed to the European Parliament, to do something about the decline of Doñana. Read the letter through the Wetlands International website.

And the Queen of the Marshes, what must she be thinking? I think she is not amused.

Probable area of influence of Tartessos (Te y Kriptonita/Redtony/Wikipedia).
Probable area of influence of Tartessos (Te y Kriptonita/Redtony/Wikipedia).

Tartessos and the Phoenicians

The Queen of the Marshes can be traced back to the Phoenicians, I discover in the book Aventuras ibéricas by hispanologist Ian Gibson. The Phoenicians arrived in southern Spain and found the rich city-state of Tartessos at the mouth of the Guadalquivir (its ruins still have to be found). They traded with the Iberians and established new trading posts such as Gades, now Cádiz, about 3,000 years ago. 

The wealth of the area was due to the metal ores that were mined there (and are still productive and cause occasional mining disasters). The geography was a bit different then. Where the rice paddies are now, there used to be a large inlet of the sea, Lago Ligustinus. But it has silted up.

Astarte, Ishtar or Hathor?

Astarte (Archaeological Museum of Seville) (by Jose Luis Filpo Cabano/Wikipedia)
Astarte (Archaeological Museum of Seville) (by Jose Luis Filpo Cabano/Wikipedia)

The Phoenicians worshiped Astarte, the goddess of the moon and of fertility. She also represented the regenerative power of nature. In Mesopotamia she was called Ishtar and in Egypt Hathor, all mother figures. At the feet of the statue of Our Lady of the Dew, which is exuberantly venerated today in Catholic Spain, lies a moon, probably a remnant of the veneration of Astarte. The Virgen is sometimes called paloma blanca, white dove, also a symbol of the Phoenician goddess.

The references to a Queen of the Marshes, inherited from even older mythical female figures, suggests that the earlier inhabitants of southern Spain recognized the importance of wetlands, marshes and water. This is not surprising either, and even less so in a hot, dry country like Spain. After all, Mother Earth, whatever her local name, must make sure crops grow, the primary concern in any civilization.

Revival of the Queen of the Marshes?

Climate scientists sometimes panic at the current state of the planet, especially since they are hardly believed. In these times of instant-information and mouse-click knowledge, we may like to revert to our ancestral intuitions, calling to the aid of ancient sages, patrons and goddesses. It's nice to think that the Queen of the Marshes soothed the worries of the people of antiquity, just as the wetlands today can curb climate change through their buffering effect. If only we could have as much respect for ecosystems as our ancestors who revered nature.


Article by Kathelijne Bonne, geologist and soil scientist. I also write on Good Climate News

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Some sources: 

Sven Tuytens, Groeten uit Spanje, 2021, EPO Uitgeverij, 280 p.

Ian Gibson, Aventuras ibéricas, 2017, Ediciones B, 416 p.

Javier Martín-Arroyo, 2021, La sequía y los pozos dejan sin agua a Doñana, El País,https://elpais.com/clima-y-medio-ambiente/2021-11-03/la-sequia-y-los-pozos-ilegales-dejan-sin-agua-a-donana.html

Mar Infantes Barroso, 2016, Astarté la "diosa de Andalucia" Bonares Digital website. https://www.bonaresdigital.es/astarte-la-diosa-andalucia/

El fenómeno antropológico de la Romería del Rocío, 2016, Tipico de Andalucia website, https://tipicodeandalucia.com/rocio-romeria/

Ministerio para la Transición y el Reto Demográfico, Dõnana Ecosistemas. https://www.miteco.gob.es/es/red-parques-nacionales/nuestros-parques/donana/valores-naturales/ecosistemas.aspx

Carmona, J.; Flores, P. y cols. (2020). Doñana y el estuario del río Guadalquivir. Análisis de WWF España sobre sus problemas ambientales. WWF España. https://wwfes.awsassets.panda.org/downloads/analisisimpactosdonana.pdf?55100/Analisis-de-los-problemas-ambientales-de-Donana-y-el-Estuario-del-Gudalquivir

30 NGOs urge European Parliament to protect Doñana National Park wetlands, 2022, Wetlands International, https://europe.wetlands.org/news/30-ngos-urge-european-parliament-to-protect-donana-national-park-wetlands/

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