With rising seas threatening to engulf low-lying shores, Spain aims to buy 832 hectares of private land in the Ebro Delta in Europe's largest ever climate-related land buyout
By Joan Faus
DELTEBRE, Spain, Oct 26 (Reuters) - When a storm hits their village in northeastern Spain, Marcela and Maria Cinta Otamendi rush to the coast, day or night, to check on their restaurant and rice fields, fearing the sea may have swallowed them.
That fear has deepened in recent years as the Mediterranean has encroached upon the land their father bought in 1951 in the Ebro River Delta, a 320 square km (124 square mile) UNESCO Biosphere Reserve rich in wetland wildlife such as flamingos.
"We don't know if we will make it through this winter," said Marcela, 56, who wants the government to preserve the land and opposes a plan to buy it out instead, vowing to fight it in court.
"It's our business but also our heritage," added her sister Maria Cinta, 58, who manages the Vascos restaurant.
With rising seas threatening to engulf low-lying shores, the government aims to buy 832 hectares of private land in the Ebro Delta in what would be Europe's largest climate-related land buyouts to date and would include Otamendi's roughly 40 hectares.
According to a preliminary protection plan expected to be finalised before December, such purchases would expand a publicly-owned buffer - by up to 560 metres inland - along the coast where nature would take its course.
The Environment Ministry told Reuters it had received 252 public comments about its plan and would take as many as possible into account. It could be approved by decree, avoiding parliamentary debate.
Madrid has not disclosed its price tag.
The plan has prompted strong opposition from officials and farmers in the Ebro Delta - where 62,000 people live and lucrative rice fields account for 65% of the area - illustrating how governments are starting to face tough choices as they try to adapt to increasing environmental risks.
The Taula de Consens association representing local municipalities and businesses says the proposal amounts to capitulation. It is gathering signatures for the European Ombudsman to investigate what it calls authorities' inaction.
Some areas of the delta form part of the EU's environmentally-protected-network Natura 2000. European Commission officials said they were not aware of Spain's plan.
The Taula wants six million cubic meters of sand brought in to guarantee the beaches' survival for 50 years at a cost of about 30 million euros ($35 million), said its technical director, Rafa Sanchez, who praised the Netherlands' use of sand for staving off the rising seas.
Residents have not been contacted by the government about the planned buyouts, which would also affect 97 beach-side luxury homes, according to the local neighbourhood council.
Spain's government predicts the sea will rise around 15 centimetres in the area by 2045 and up to 78 cm by 2081-2100, forecasting at least one beach could be gone by 2060.
The Ebro Delta is sinking and shrinking in some sections due to coastal erosion triggered by a shortage of sediments, accelerated by sea level rise and more frequent and intense storms caused by climate change, scientists say.
The delta's tip shrank by 648 meters between 1986 and 2016, while the beach by the Vascos lost 141 meters, a 2018 study by Catalonia's Polytechnic University said.
Researcher Carles Ibañez said that without adequate measures the delta will progressively flood, affecting 70% of its surface by 2100 if the sea rises up to one meter from 1995-2014, as predicted by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change under its very high emissions scenario.
He believes that could be avoided if water pumping stations are expanded, dykes are built and upriver damming modified to allow more silt to reach the Ebro's mouth.
Others, however, say the battle may be futile.
"Sea level rise is accelerating and there is not much we can do to counteract it. A responsible strategy is to move our activities further inland," said Javier Lloret, a research scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts.
ADAPTING OR MOVING AWAY?
The fear of extreme weather wiping out the delta crystallized in January 2020 when storm Gloria flooded around 3,000 hectares of rice fields.
It temporarily submerged a thin strip connecting the mainland to the delta's southern peninsula, which has a major salt plain dating back to the 1700s.
It was a wake-up call for its operator Infosa, which is now seeking to build a ship-loading dock.
"Climate change is our biggest challenge and threat," said Infosa's chief executive Manel Salvado.
The storm also flooded Joan Ferrer's rice fields 3 km inland, costing him nearly 15,000 euros.
The 32-year-old takes pride in being a fourth-generation rice farmer, and although he has discussed with his wife the possibility of moving inland, he is participating in a local project to grow high salinity-resistant rice.
And while Marcela Otamendi increasingly feels like a stranger on her land, which shrank by nearly a third since 1993, she prefers not to think about leaving: "First, we have to fight to the limit."
(Reporting by Joan Faus, additional reporting by Horaci Garcia, Nacho Doce and Kate Abnett; Editing by Andrei Khalip, Gareth Jones, William Maclean)