Droughts in Algarve: factors, consequences and coping measures

Droughts are not news to Portugal, especially the Algarve, a region characterised by a warm and dry climate, making it particularly susceptible to droughts.

The Algarve has a history of droughts, some of which have had significant impacts on the region’s economy and people.

One of the most severe droughts occurred in 2004 and 2005, when the region experienced a prolonged period of low rainfall. This drought had a severe impact on agriculture, particularly on the almond and citrus industries, which were severely affected by the lack of water. The water supply in some areas was also affected, with water restrictions being imposed to conserve water resources.

Another significant drought occurred in 2017. In this time, water supply was especially low, and some municipalities had to implement water-rationing measures to ensure that the water supply was sufficient for domestic use. Farmers had to reduce crop yields, while their livestock was impacted by a lack of food and water.

The following year, the region was again hit by a severe drought, which led to a decline in crop yields and again affected the water supply in some areas of the region. Water restrictions were once again implemented, and some municipalities had to import water from other areas of the country.

More recently, in summer 2022, there was a medium to severe drought accompanied by scarcity in water which forced some municipalities to take similar response measures as previous years, including cutting water for private swimming pools and some golf courses, a major tourism driver for the Algarve.

Nevertheless, this year’s drought is already much more severe than exactly one year ago. Since January 2023, up until March, there has been a sharp decrease in rainfall. The percentage of water in the soil in April 2023 is almost zero in several areas of the south of Portugal. According to the Portuguese Institute for Sea and Weather, IPMA, currently, 89% of the Portuguese territory is in a drought situation, and 34% is experiencing severe and extreme drought (Alentejo and Algarve).

Indeed, the region’s geography, including its position along the southern coast of Portugal, its proximity to the African continent, and its relatively flat terrain, also contributes to the terrain’s susceptibility to drought. Besides, there are a variety of factors that contribute to droughts. In some cases, such factors are also subject to the consequences of droughts.

First of all, climate variability. The Algarve experiences significant variations in precipitation levels throughout the year, with most of the rainfall occurring in the winter months. As described above, in recent years, the region has experienced lower-than-average rainfall, which has contributed to drought conditions.

Linked to the first factor is soil moisture depletion. When soil moisture is depleted due to a lack of precipitation, it can affect the growth of crops and vegetation, making vegetation more susceptible to fires.

In addition, human activities such as deforestation, urbanization, and overgrazing can reduce the amount of vegetation cover and change the water cycle, making the land more susceptible to drought.

Differently from the factors mentioned above, agricultural practices are also subject to the consequences of droughts. Agricultural work puts a lot of pressure on water resources. The Algarve is known for its oranges, lemons, almonds, and carob trees, among others, making it an essential industry for the region. Practices like irrigation, for instance, can put pressure on water resources, especially during drought conditions. At the same time, droughts affect crop production and livestock farming, often forcing farmers to reduce crop yields or delay planting, thus influencing their income and livelihoods.

Finally, tourism plays a role in water scarcity. Algarve is a popular tourist destination and, during peak tourist season, the region experiences high demand for water. This increased demand can put a strain on the region’s water resources, and this is especially true during times of low rainfall. At the same time, tourists might also be affected, as occurred last summer when some swimming pools were closed.

Bearing this in mind, it is clear that droughts can have significant impacts on agriculture, water supply, and the environment. Therefore, it is crucial to manage water resources carefully throughout the year to best mitigate these impacts.

Good water management practices are even more critical since the mainland is particularly subject to wildfires. In fact, besides causing disruptions to agricultural practices and water supply, droughts can also create ideal conditions for wildfires to occur and easily spread.

When an area experiences a prolonged period of dry weather with low humidity and high temperatures, vegetation (bushes, trees, grass) becomes easily dry and flammable. Should there be an ignition source in this environment, such as bad human activity or lightning, this can easily start a fire.

Due to the lack of humidity, vegetation is not only more susceptible to catching fire but also to burn for longer periods of time, making fires more challenging to control and extinguish.

Additionally, droughts can cause water sources such as lakes, rivers, and streams to dry up, which can make it harder for firefighters to access the water they need to extinguish fires.

Therefore, it is essential to take steps to prevent fires and prepare for them especially during droughts. Preventive measures may include implementing fire safety measures such as using fire-resistant materials in construction, maintaining clean space around homes and buildings, monitoring campfires, limiting outdoor burning, and ensuring that firefighting resources are adequately funded and available.

Drought wise, governments can take several measures to mitigate the impacts of droughts. Public awareness sessions about water scarcity and conservation can prompt individuals to adopt water-saving practices. Recycling and reusing wastewater helps to conserve water resources and reduce the demand for freshwater during droughts. Developing water storage facilities (dams, reservoirs, aquifer storage) can help to store water during wet periods and supply it during droughts. Other practices include measures to reduce water demand, like promoting water-efficient technologies, developing drought-tolerant crops, in addition to reforestation, soil conservation, and reducing soil erosion. What is certain is that a common effort is needed in order to tackle the problem with a holistic approach.

By Antonia Vignolo

Safe Communities Portugal has a management team comprising well qualified, talented and experienced volunteers most with international experience. This month, Antonia Vignolo, who is a consultant on climate change adaptation and disaster management, has written this feature for which I am grateful.

  • David Thomas, President, Safe Communities Portugal