Some ten acres of Albufera were affected when a sewage pipe burst. | Govern balear


This weekend in Rutland, birdwatchers and representatives of the global ornithological tourism industry are gathering for the Birdlife Fair. It is one of the most important events dedicated to birdwatching. The Balearic Tourism Agency is there, as are other associations from Majorca. Birdwatching is one of the array of "alternative" tourist products that the regional government and others wish to promote.

There are various key locations for birdlife on the islands. The Albufera Nature Park is arguably the most important. At the same time as the park and the other locations are being promoted in Rutland, four hectares (almost ten acres) of Albufera and the neighbouring finca of Son Bosc (due to officially become part of the park) have been swamped by a spillage from a sewage pipe. The diplomatic descriptions of this spill are "wastewater" or "faecal water". You don't need me to spell out the four-letter word that is inherent to such a spillage.

Certain birds may be affected by the spill, such as the Kentish plover. In Rutland one would imagine they have heard about the incident. The timing is thus most unfortunate. But it was an incident that has been described as the tip of the iceberg. There have been repeated discharges in Albufera, mostly never reported and previously not on anything like the scale of this week's. The peculiar smells that Albufera can give off, especially in high summer, have often been attributed to marsh gases. This may be correct, but there may be other reasons as well.

The coincidence of high summer and this week's incident is plain enough. Technicians from Muro town hall and the government's water agency Abaqua were not making political statements about tourist "saturation" when they referred to the strains on the sewage system from tourists. Those strains have been there for years. The specific pipe that burst serves Can Picafort, historically a resort with the highest August hotel occupancy percentage anywhere in Majorca.

The obsolete nature of the treatment plant in Albufera is, in a way, a separate issue, but the spill should make the decision to finally establish a new plant in Son Baulo that much easier. For way too long the arguments between Muro and Santa Margalida town halls have been allowed to dominate discussions and delay decisions. They have to get on with Son Baulo urgently, assuming they can overcome fears regarding the outlet that is due to be some three kilometres offshore in the bay. Such fears were not helped by the recent spill of fecal water at the existing Son Baulo pumping station.

Though it may be a separate issue, Muro's mayor Marti Fornés made it clear during the week that there will be further incidents unless the Albufera plant is wound down (or placed under far less strain). Perhaps he would say this, given that Muro have long pressed for the Son Baulo alternative, but he may well be right.

But in terms of wider environmental considerations in Albufera, the spill simply highlights the mismanagement that has been allowed to persist over years. The climate has admittedly not helped in creating the current water shortage, but water renewal has not been assisted either by the overuse of the local aquifers, while there are levels of contamination derived primarily from the treatment plant in Sa Pobla, from which nitrates and other agricultural chemicals have been carried to Albufera when there is heavy rain.

GOB, the environmentalist group that was originally founded as an ornithological group (this is what the acronym stands for), has highlighted the fact that there has never before been such a problem with water as there is at present in Albufera. GOB also drew attention earlier this year to the vastly reduced populations of mallards and coots. All this in what is supposed to be one of the jewels of alternative, wildlife tourism for Majorca.

Joan Monjo, Santa Margalida's deputy mayor, has been at his typically most indignant over the incident. Sensing that Can Picafort is being blamed for having too many tourists who brought about the spill, he's been wanting to know why no maintenance has been undertaken by the government during much of the time (some ten years) that there have been the arguments over the Son Baulo plant. For once, he and Fornés agree on something. Monjo suggested this week that revenue raised by both the tourist tax and the levy on water treatment (the tax that no one normally ever mentions) should go towards renewal.

But Monjo will know that part of the reason for government inaction is that it has been insisting that Madrid hands over promised funding for sewage treatment plants. While the government (this one certainly) has been rowing with Madrid, and while the previous one simply failed to apply for funding, investment in plants has been low to the point of non-existent.

However, this week the tourism minister Biel Barceló finally seemed to wake up to the fact that the tourist tax could be used for water resources. Whether it will be is another matter. Under the broad and vague definition of sustainable tourism, there is justification for such a purpose, but the investment would be on a scale that would contradict what Barceló has said about tourist tax projects: they are intended to be ones with modest spend and to therefore be numerous.

Meanwhile, they're having to pump the faecal water away. High summer and some ten acres have been giving off odours it would be preferable that they did not. What an absolute disgrace.