The future for livestock farmers is bleak
The future for livestock farmers is bleak Photo: NUNO VEIGA / LUSA

Drying out! Calls for quick action over water crisis

Authorities accused of negligence as Algarve and Alentejo beset by drought

Climate scientists have been warning for years that southern Portugal is drying out; that levels of rainfall will continue to reduce; that contingency measures must be put in place – yet three years after the first desalination plant was mooted for installation in Albufeira, the region is nowhere near seeing this happen, and ‘all the while’ intensive agriculture projects – the acres of plastic greenhouses drawing water from the pitifully low Santa Clara reservoir in the southern Alentejo – have been allowed to proliferate.

As the country faces its third heatwave for April – a month traditionally characterised by ‘águas mil’ (plentiful showers) – authorities have surpassed themselves with ideas: a tourist tax has been suggested, as a way of helping the region become more environmentally sustainable, while president of AMAL, the intermunicipal community of the Algarve, has said “the worsening of the drought in the Algarve should oblige reflection on the model of development for the region to define what activities could have a future in the scenario of water scarcity”.

There is literally nothing in either suggestion that provides a ready solution to the drama that is already deeply affecting farmers and producers, particularly those with livestock whose pastures have all but disappeared due to the paucity of rainfall.

Meantime, the last mention of those ‘brave plans’ for desalination plants came two months ago, in the form of a warning by the national monitoring committee for RRP funding (the billions coming from Brussels for recovery and resilience) that “the time has come to rapidly define how the government intends to finance” them. Since then … nothing (certainly nothing in the national press).

Thus, last week, civic groups ‘Juntos Pelo Sudoeste’ (JPS) and ‘SOS Rio Mira’ made a new and concerted push for action – a push that appears to have borne fruit, in that JPS’ last Facebook post remarks that “finally the Secretary of State for Agriculture has agreed to meet with us”.

At a meeting of the Drought Commission, also last week, the government (in the form of ministers of the environment and climate action Duarte Cordeiro and agriculture Maria de Céu Antunes) accepted that there has to be a ban on “the construction of new greenhouses” in the southern Alentejo. But as JPS and SOS point out, this comes “years late and is clearly inadequate in the face of the chaos and difficult challenges in south-west Portugal”.

Bravura Dam in the western Algarve
Bravura Dam in the western Algarve

Negligence and obfuscation

The nub of the issue, in activists’ minds – and when we say ‘activists’, we mean ‘deeply concerned citizens’ – is that “State and government negligence has allowed all the limits of a region that is sensitive not only for its natural values but also for its exposure to the impact of climate change, as well as its social and demographic situation, to be exceeded.

“The result of this negligence (…), of this ultra-liberal or simply incompetent laissez faire, is plain to see: a thirsty territory, with deep social and environmental wounds, which will tend to worsen if it is confirmed that those who get the last drops of Santa Clara (dam water) are the last to arrive (meaning the investors in the hectares of plastic greenhouses).”

The bottom line of government deliberations – and even AMAL president’s pontifications – is that authorities appear to accept the ‘status quo’ in which agriculture accounts for 60% of the region’s water usage (golf courses, conversely, are responsible for only 6% of water usage; households for 32%).

JPS and SOS contend that authorities have been focused on “protecting the interests of a handful of powerful agricultural businesspeople” – and to a large extent still are – when

logic suggests that if intensive agriculture is essentially desertifying the south, it needs to be reined in.

A third desalination plant, for Alentejo, privately-funded

This idea has been mooted and would, on paper, address the issue of large-scale farms under hectares of plastic. But this is only on paper. Desalination carries enormous environmental downsides, not least the question of how to dispose of (or sustainably recycle) the huge quantities of brine created.

A recent conversation, admittedly in passing, with a source at a regional water authority suggested the plan for the time being is to “take (the brine) out to sea, far, far out where it won’t affect anything …” In other words, the niceties of desalination are a long way from having been decided, at a point where no-one has even explained where exactly the Algarve’s desalination plants will be, or how they will be financed.

Species’ diversity already seriously compromised

 In Alcoutim, northeast Algarve, livestock farmer Nuno Coelho has been telling Lusa that it is not simply a question of pastures not growing sufficiently to feed cattle/sheep/goats. The lack of rain has reduced diversity of species: “Plants don’t have the proper growth and development and, year after year, the variety of biodiversity in the seed bank in the soil is getting worse and worse. One hectare of land, for my animals, used to allow me to graze there for 15 days. At the moment, maybe in three or four days they clear the land…”

The future for livestock farmers, in Nuno Coelho’s opinion – as one of them who has seen the climate heating up and drying out in front of his eyes – is bleak.

One could argue perhaps that livestock farming will have to concentrate in the wetter regions of the country. This is where one Resident reader has written to our office asking why, at no point, haven’t authorities considered a pipeline to transport excess water from the north (where, even this year, it has rained plentifully) to the south?

Considering the millions of euros that would have to be spent on desalination plants – and the time it will undoubtedly take to get there – it is a very good question.

By Natasha Donn
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