At first glance the Rio Ebro at Camping Lake Caspe cuts a stark and wonderful landscape where rich blue water laps at gently sloping shores of grey mud and crumbling rock, dotted with patches of green and red fauna on the far shore which cast dark brown swatches of shadow beneath the sparsely dispersed trees and low, flat-topped rolling hills in the distance.
A myriad of fish including catfish and carp breach the river’s surface; silver flashes that turn to black torpedoes as they submerge, leaving behind only ripples on the gently moving current. That and the multitude of bird songs bring a chorus of life to the arid desert landscape.
A closer look reveals a sad truth though; that man’s intervention has once again taken something beautiful and rendered it a cesspool.
The early morning tranquillity is shattered by hordes of fisherman arriving in 4x4s towing boats on rickety trailers which they back into the river, fire up the engines and speed off into the great watery expanse leaving plumes of blue smoke and white trails in the water behind them.
Along the shore casual ‘hobbyists’ line up with seats, cooler boxes, stoves and blankets; a signal of their intent to sit it out all day come hell or low water. Among other paraphernalia are high tech fishing gadgets which hang from the rod and bleep when they have a catch – the modern fisherman too lazy to even hold his own weapon.
Carcasses of dead fish litter the area, some as long as 1.5 metres lying amongst discarded fishing nets and lines which themselves nestle in beds of red heather-like plants; all this despite the ‘No Fishing’ signs as you enter the port.
Further signs of man’s encroachment are empty bottles, cans, food containers, crisp packets,old shoes, a car battery, a rusty air pump, broken chairs, various defunct boat and fishing equipment and multi-litre bottles half full of age old urine.
Bare, long dead trees line the shore where the tributary meets the river proper and chunks of foamy pollution follow the eastbound current across its mouth, washing up on the far side where it clings to rocks, muscles and barnacles, smothering them with a sticky film as it bakes dry in the sun. An odd stench fills the air, oddly sweet yet utterly nauseating.
I stood beside the high water mark and by rights should have been underwater. According to a local resident the dam at Mequinenza has caused the water levels to drop severely (15m), concentrating the fish into much narrower, shallower channels making them much easier ‘sport’ for the masses of fishermen who exploit these waters on a daily basis.
Between the dam, fishermen and pollution the fish stocks and other wildlife of the Rio Ebro are in genuine peril. Among them are Oysters which are now a protected species, another rule unheeded by greedy fishermen who flout the laws by exploiting the shellfish and casting their shells on the banks of the river.
It seems that nobody enforces the laws here and that the dam too is as responsible for the carnage as the tourists and fishermen.
Some might argue that the dam is a vital source of power, but only those who value human convenience over the safety and longevity of the natural environment.
In a country subject to so much sunlight and with so many hills and mountains, one has to question if the dam is needed at all any longer. Wind and solar power could easily sustain the small communities around Mequinenza at a fraction of the cost required to run and maintain the dam.
Causes of the pollution (heavy metals and radioactive waste among them) need some investigation but the Rio Ebro runs from its source at Pico de los Tres Mares (“Peak of the Three Oceans”) in Reinosa, Cantabria which raises a few pertinent questions. Not far from Reinosa at Cabuerniga there is a fierce battle raging between local farmers and an American company who were given permission by the previous Cantabrian government to carry out Hydraulic Fracturing in order to extract hydrocarbons from beneath the Sahka-Nansa soil.
The company involved is not being named by Spanish media but given their track record I wouldn’t be shocked to discover it was Halliburton.
Fracking is highly poisonous to the environment and with Cabuerniga being so close to Reinosa the notion that pollution from the gas extraction is finding its way into the Rio Ebro is not a far fetched fantasy.
Whatever the case, the Rio Ebra is in dire need of some love, attention and restoration before its fish stocks are completely depleted and other wildlife suffers as a result of constant exploitation leading to holes in the ecosystem.
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images: All images copyright Jacob Lee Bane.