Drought: Government’s response ‘just not good enough’

Government “without new measures”

Environment minister Duarte Cordeiro insisted this week that there is “no necessity” for limitations on water usage, despite mainland territory to be deemed 89% affected by drought. “There is no point in introducing a prohibition culture”, he said in an interview that seemed at odds with concern for the environment and climate action (the two responsibilities of his ministry).

Today, Expresso runs with worrying projections over the future likelihood of continuing periods of drought, with temperature increases of up to 4ºC within less than 30 years.

These will be projections that Mr Cordeiro must be aware of: “the south of the country could be in line for 95 days with temperatures above 35ºC” every year; over six months with temperatures above 25ºC; some areas could experience temperatures of 51ºC in summer months, says Expresso.

Yesterday, president of the CIM (intermunicipal community of the Baixo Alentejo), António Bota, lamented the ongoing lack of response by ‘responsible entities’ for the situation of drought that he maintains has been an issue for the last 20 years.

Bota is particularly frustrated by delays in setting up a connection between Alqueva Dam and Monte Rocha. This should have come on line years ago, he stresses, particularly as Monte Rocha serves areas in the Baixo Alentejo deeply compromised by agricultural monocultures.

He told Lusa of what he called “delays created”, which translate into the pipeline unlikely to be in any kind of action before 2025. “It worries me that we may not have water to give to the people and that we could have overcome this situation”, he stresses – very much as golf courses in the Algarve have said they too are ‘frustrated’ by the lack of movement on connecting them to wastewater treatment plants.

Also yesterday, the Resident received an email informing us of a presentation last month made to experts at the University of the Algarve and representatives of Portuguese water authorities in which a leading specialist in environmental hydrogeology outlined how to overcome drought issues, with low-cost/high-tech bio-sealing technology. It was suggested that a pilot project using this technology could be launched in Portugal – specifically in the Algarve – “but no response”.

A source at Águas do Algarve insists ‘there is no shortage of water for public consumption this year’, yet boreholes in certain areas (not serviced by mains water networks) have already run dry.

Why is there no sense of urgency?

Researchers, finally, are beginning to ‘make noises’.

Luís Filipe Fernandes, from the University of Tras-os-Montes and Alto Douro’s agro-environmental and biological technologies research centre (CITAB), concedes that “intensive farming is exacerbating drought”. 

The decision by the government, announced last month, to “prohibit any new greenhouse projects in the southwest Alentejo” and to “lower the quota for water capture in the Santa Clara dam” (long at ‘dead level’ in terms of capacity), will do little in the end to ‘save water’ as the area is already “hardly breathing” under hundreds of hectares of plastic greenhouses (this written by Público … in 2019).

Luís Filipe Fernandes’ ‘solution’ is different to that of SEDES – which has advocated among a number of measures for a water highway, bringing excess water from the north to the south. He tells Lusa he doesn’t believe the highway idea will work, from a cost or environmental point of view (when the government is planning to spend millions on desalination plants, that are neither cost effective nor environmental). He believes more forests need to be planted, as these retain rainwater – and the south has already lost a lot of healthy forest, particularly due to forest fires.

Fernandes warns: “If we continue with this intensive agriculture with the sole aim of producing systematically – even going so far as to produce agricultural products that are not of a seasonal nature, which they want to be of a permanent nature – more and more water will be needed.” 

And that’s the nub of the issue: the government may have prohibited new intensive agriculture projects in areas parched by drought, but the understanding is that the explorations already operating are to continue.

“The government has no new measures to address the problem”, admits Expresso in its exposé on drought this week, in which it concludes that every ‘solution’ being mulled comes up against one principal problem: financial cost.

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