The sun falls obliquely on the deserted beach. There are hardly any children playing on the shore of Los Urrutias (Murcia), neither buckets of sand nor rakes, only a body of water ruined by man, from which two excavators remove piles of decomposing algae. The air is impregnated with each shovelful of an acid smell that scares away the bather from the Mar Menor. Some observe the scene from the spas, some gigantic wooden walkways that allow them to avoid the quagmire of the lagoon, where a yellow foam also bubbles. This is the devastated postcard of a prodigy of nature threatened by rampant urbanism and intensive agriculture. A degradation that even affects the value of the real estate park in the area, which has depreciated 4,800 million euros in six years, according to a study recently published in the journal Nature Scientific Report.
Led by the Bank of Spain economist Gabriel Pérez Quirós, the report analyzes the consequences of the environmental disaster for housing. Compare the average price per square meter on the beaches of the Mar Menor (municipalities such as Los Urrutias, Los Alcázares or Los Nietos) with that of the south coast of Alicante (Pilar de la Horadada, Dehesa de Campoamor or La Zenia), coinciding up to 2015 due to its proximity and a very similar construction quality. The real estate market analyzed in the study then began to disassociate itself from its Mediterranean parallel as the ills that afflicted the Murcian lagoon became evident. Harmful algal blooms and phytoplankton led to episodes of anoxia—loss of oxygen—that brought thousands of dead fish to the surface. These phenomena have their origin in the large amount of nitrates that reach the water, coming from the irrigation of Campo de Cartagena (85%) and urban activity (15%), according to the aforementioned research.
“People are willing to pay less for an environment that is not as pleasant as before,” Pérez Quirós points out about a study that he signed, among others, with the environmentalist Mari Luz García Lorenzo from the Complutense University. Based on data from the cadastre, the report excludes La Manga, only partially affected by this symptomatology, since it also has access to the Mediterranean. The diseases of the Mar Menor are multiple. Intensive agriculture has caused contamination of the Quaternary aquifer by nitrate, which seeps into the lagoon through the Albujón boulevard —the drainage of the orchard—, where a river with a permanent flow that carries chemicals is formed. The effect of this infiltration is similar to fertilizing the sea, but instead of harvesting tomatoes, opportunistic algae and microplankton grow everywhere. When all that biomass dies, the easterly wind pushes it into the lagoon. The danger of anoxia increases considerably if this sludge is not removed.
The cleaning brigades of the Murcian Government extracted only last year more than 20 tons of organic waste. The collection gives rise to a collection of shocking prints, like the one that lives this morning in Los Urrutias. “Do you think I would come to this beach if I didn’t have a house here?” Fuensanta Moreno (43 years old) asks with some irony, shortly before an excavator passed by her towel. This resident professor in Cartagena is the example of what is called captive vacationers here. Her parents bought a whitewashed, two-story house for the holidays in the seventies. From that time he remembers the feeling of eternal summer. And the crystalline waters of the lagoon, where the seahorses trotted, which not infrequently got tangled in his fingers. The memory of what was the Mar Menor contrasts with this present. “It is very sad to come, but what are we going to do, sell off the house and rent somewhere? To begin with, let’s see who buys it”.
A house for sale, on the second line of the beach in Los Urrutias (Cartagena). ALFONSO DURAN
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If the number of real estate transactions is a good indicator of economic activity, it could be said that the towns of the Mar Menor are in general crisis. Operations of this type in the south of Alicante doubled between 2015 and 2019 those in this area. Until then, the total number of sales had been very similar in both regions, as indicated by Pérez Quirós, but “the ecological disaster damaged the market.” This is a deferred payment for past benefits. The conversion of the dry land into irrigated land thanks to the transfer of the Tagus to the Segura, construction and tourism came to leave large amounts of money in the region. Amparo Rubio, owner of the Mar real estate agency in Los Urrutias, explains: “The beach has deteriorated, that is the origin of everything that happens here. Many vendors ask me to fool some foreigner who doesn’t know what’s going on, but foreigners come once and don’t come back”.
There are many boarded up houses in Los Urrutias. Some of them have a privileged location, on the first or second line of the beach. A fine layer of dust falls heavily on the “for sale” signs. The town belongs to the municipality of Cartagena, like Los Nietos, Mar de Cristal, Bahía Bella and other towns of the Mar Menor. Vacation destinations with hardly any productive fabric, whose deterioration is progressing at the same rate as that of this small salty lagoon with an extension of 170 square kilometers and a shallow depth. The illegal occupation of real estate is not a problem at this point, says Carlos Salcedo (45 years old), who lives in Los Urrutias all year round. “Who is going to want to live here? There is not even a health center, just a doctor’s office. Since we don’t have our own Town Hall, no one defends us. The bus to Murcia passes a couple of times and the one to Cartagena, as many times, ”he laments. His family put up the house of a deceased aunt for sale almost a year ago. “And there she continues, closed and fucked up.”
An excavator collects seaweed on the beach of Los Urrutias.ALFONSO DURANOliver Dorostkar and María José Gómez, owners of a language school in Los Alcázares.ALFONSO DURAN
Dead jellyfish pile up on the sand on the beach. A girl dissects their gelatinous bodies, which are still moving, with the help of two sticks. “Look mom, how scary!” She exclaims nervously. The most abundant species is called fried egg, whose population grows as a result of chemical fertilizers that reach the Mar Menor. The increase in water temperature also influences its explosion, which these days reaches very high levels due to the effect of climate change, according to the biologist from the University of Murcia Ángel Pérez Ruzafa. “Jellyfish come to our aid, because they feed on plankton. They reduce the primary production of the lagoon and, therefore, the risk of anoxia. Putting nets to catch them is a mistake. As if you have an infection and you are dedicated to killing white blood cells ”, declares the expert. For this reason, no municipality on the riverbank has installed barriers this year. Good for the ecosystem, bad for the bather.
The devaluation of the real estate park in this territory is also the responsibility of companies. Its capacity depends to a large extent on the value of its real estate assets, as the report recalls. “Obviously, we are concerned about the future, ours and that of the town,” explains María José Gómez, who more than a decade ago opened a language center in Los Alcázares, the only independent municipality in the Mar Menor, together with San Javier, and very punished by the dana. “Most of the politicians who govern this community spend the summer in La Torre de la Horada, they don’t know the Mar Menor. They also feel a deep contempt for the popular and democratic tourism that this area has traditionally represented”, declares the businesswoman. The possibility of a pact between the PP and Vox to govern the region is keeping him awake at night. “If the deniers enter the institutions, we are lost,” she adds. Just two kilometers from her academy, the Albujón boulevard incessantly spits out the nitrate that poisons the largest salty lagoon on the continent.
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