Issues of concern
In the last decades Ibiza and Formentera have undergone an explosive growth process, leading to untenable resource use, waste generation and extensive environmental degradation. This unsustainable development has been driven mainly by tourism.
The rapid transition of the Pitiusas islands from a subsistence (farming) economy to one where tourism is the single main activity and driving sector, has led to an unbalanced and unsustainable growth pattern with a tremendous impact on the islands’ environment. With a residential population of some 150,000 people, the islands come under colossal pressure when more than 2 million tourists arrive annually. This massive flow of tourists in a short period of time exceeds the capacity of the islands’ environment, and has generated a huge demand for land, water and energy, while producing an increasing volume of wastes.
The impact on Ibiza and Formentera’s fragile landscapes and ecosystems has been severe. In 2007 a panel of more than 500 tourist experts rated Ibiza worst out of 111 islands around the world in terms of tourism impact.
Oil prospecting in the Mediterranean Sea around the Balearic archipelago has recently become a major threat to the islands’ environment.
Current issues of concern include:
- Transformed coastlines and inland landscapes
- Large transport infrastructure
- Loss of important habitats and biodiversity
- Water scarcity and pollution
- Increased pollution due to soaring energy use
- Increased waste
- Loss of rural landscapes, agrobiodiversity and traditional knowledge on sustainable resource management
- Loss of cultural heritage
- Oil drilling in the Mediterranean
- Forest fires
The last decades have seen much of Ibiza and Formentera’s coastline transformed by urbanizations. Recent changes weakening Spanish coastal legislation may lead to new and destructive constructions. Urbanization is now expanding inland, threatening the remaining well-preserved areas in the islands. Tourism development in Ibiza has been accompanied by the construction of marinas and golf courses, with a significant environmental impact. Moreover, golf courses require considerable quantities of water, driving demand for more desalination plants that are major polluters and high-energy users. Marinas have a great impact in fragile coastal areas, and threaten valuable marine habitats, such as the Posidonia meadows.
Plans to enlarge the existing airport in order to expand its capacity (one million more passengers per year) are a major environmental concern, not only because visits already exceed the carrying capacity of the island but also because the works will have a significant negative impact in Ses Salines Natural Park.
The impact of the recent construction of a macro-port in the city of Ibiza has not been assessed, but a UNESCO mission investigating it concluded in 2009 that the scale of the development was “beyond acceptable limits” and posed a serious threat to the Posidonia meadows declared World Heritage site. Moreover, it is feared that the new port facilities will eventually lead to the construction of new access roads damaging Ses Feixes wetland.
Most of Ibiza and Formentera’s important habitats are coastal or marine areas, threatened by urbanization and other activities connected to mass tourism. (Natura 2000 Network map. PDF – 3,4Mb)
Even existing Natural Parks are at risk: protection has not safeguarded fragile habitats in Ses Salines Park from the massive influx of tourism, while the drastic reduction of Cala d’Hort protected area in 2007 implies that protection of valuable habitats in the area from housing development or sport facilities, such as golf courses, is currently uncertain.
Marine habitats of key international importance, such as Ses Salines prairies of Posidonia Oceanica, are currently threatened by boat anchoring, navigation and pollution problems, including oil drilling in the Mediterranean. The fields of Posidonia are a great source of biodiversity, harbouring a remarkable number of plant and animal species, some of them highly endangered.
Ibiza and Formentera also harbour important colonies of Europe’s most threatened sea-bird, the Balearic shearwater, catalogued by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) as Critically Endangered; its rapid population decline and small population could lead to the extinction of the species in the next decades.
Escalating water demand from mass tourism in the last decades has led to depleted and polluted aquifers and to a growing dependency on desalination plants.
Desalination plants on the other hand, contaminate coastal waters and contribute strongly to Ibiza and Formentera’s soaring energy demand.
In 2015 we supported a study, coordinated by the University of Baleares, to obtain the best available information regarding Ibiza water situation. The research reports that aquifers are heavily contaminated with seawater as a result of overexploitation, as well as the difficulties of using recycled water, due to a heavy concentration of salt. The report also includes 10 recommendations for a better water management.
You can download the full report in English here. (27Mb)
Energy consumption in Ibiza and Formentera has risen dramatically (almost 70%) over the last decade. Transport – including air traffic – is the main energy user in the islands, accounting for more than 60% of total energy consumption.
Power generation is currently another main destination of oil imports to the island. In the near future a natural gas pipeline linking Ibiza to the peninsula will allow substitution of oil by natural gas, mitigating the climate change impact of the Pitiusas’ electricity production. But tourism growth, new desalination plants and an escalating use of air conditioners and other electrical appliances threaten to undo the positive impact of this development.
Meanwhile, Ibiza and Formentera’s potential for solar energy remains almost untapped.
Sewage plants are one of the main “black spots” in Ibiza coastal areas. In the tourism season existing facilities simply cannot cope with sewage discharge, which ends up being dumped into the sea.
The volume of household waste is also increasing, and selective collection and recycling currently represents a small fraction of total waste produced (some 13% in Ibiza and 21% in Formentera in 2013). Further measures are required to encourage waste reduction and recycling, and to improve collection services.
Loss of rural landscapes, agrobiodiversity and traditional knowledge on sustainable resource management
Decades of tourism monoculture in Ibiza and Formentera have entailed an extensive abandonment of farming. Abandonment not only leads to a loss of attractive landscape features and the quality of the countryside: it also means that local agricultural varieties and traditional knowledge on sustainable resource management risk being lost forever.
Meanwhile, the islands’ food supply is largely dependent on imports. Local agriculture, predominantly small-scale, has difficulties in competing with intensive production from outside. But a growing demand for quality food and organic products produced locally provides new opportunities for the recovery of farming. Organic production is on the rise, with more than 10% of farmers now growing organic food.
Ibiza and Formentera are known for their beaches, their Mediterranean landscape, and their nightlife. But they also harbour an impressive cultural heritage that has been neglected for decades. Dalt Vila, declared cultural UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, abounds in beautiful – and derelict – buildings. Archaeological sites, largely ignored, are being destroyed by road-building and urban development. And although praiseworthy efforts have been devoted to cataloguing the remarkable rural heritage of the islands (fountains, cisterns, lime kilns etc.), effective action to protect it is lacking. Apadrina Patrimonio, a programme launched in 2008 by the Ibiza government to encourage local involvement in cultural heritage conservation, has contributed to raise public awareness. But the task ahead is still vast.
The Balearic islands are currently surrounded -literally- by oil prospecting projects (map). Exploratory activities involve acoustic surveys that threaten whales, dolphin, sea turtles and marine life in general, posing a serious menace to many protected species and to fisheries.
Drilling tests, the next stage of prospecting work, imply the release of mud and toxic compounds into the ocean, polluting the sea and coastal areas. Moreover, the deep sea-drilling operations required are extremely hazardous and could lead to disaster, like the 2010 BP accident in the Gulf of México.
This danger is compounded should large oil deposits be found and mined in the future. An oil spill in the area would be catastrophic for Ibiza and Formentera and for the whole Mediterranean.
Forest fires in Mediterranean basin are part of the natural dynamics of ecosystems, and have been a main tool in the management of natural resources. But in recent decades the number of fires and surface burned has increased dramatically, becoming a serious environmental hazard. The increase in forest fires is generally attributed to land-use changes (rural abandonment leading to fuel accumulation and loss of proper knowledge on how to manage and prevent fires, urbanization and construction of infrastructures, and the presence of urban population in wooded areas), and inadequate prevention policies. Climate warming is another factor leading to increased risk.
In Ibiza, fire hazard is exacerbated by a lack of management of woodlands -and increased dry biomass-, urbanization of forest areas, and the abandonment of farming -with pinewoods invading farmland that used to play a crucial fire-break role.