THIS MONTH has been declared the driest January in 104 years. The Portuguese Institute of Meteorology announced recently that, very soon, nearly the whole of mainland Portugal will be in a situation of “severe” or “extreme” drought. February, March and April are also expected to be “drier than normal”. The institute further stated that the present situation is now “much more serious than was predicted at the beginning of this month”.
play down water crisis
Fruit farmers in the county of Silves, in the Algarve, Portugal’s largest citrus producing region, are in crisis. The Arade reservoir, crucial to the irrigation of thousands of hectares of citrus orchards that surround it, is now the driest in Portugal and, if there is not enough rain by the summer, it is believed that next year’s harvest will be put in danger because of drought damage done to the trees during the all important blossoming stage.
Because many farmers have successfully relied, year after year, on the many irrigation channels that flow directly from the reservoir, there has been no need to invest in other means of irrigation such as boreholes. Now, all the farmers can do is pray for rain.
Recently, the Faculty of Engineering and Natural Resources (FERN) of the University of the Algarve warned that the Algarve now runs the risk of passing into a period of “extreme” drought and will begin to suffer not only the problems brought by lack of water but also by aridity.
In order to minimise any negative impact on the Algarve’s tourism sector, the drought crisis has, up to now, been played down with local politicians and industry spokesmen guaranteeing that there will still be water in the taps and swimming pools, and irrigation on the golf courses. Nevertheless, it looks likely that there will be a concerted campaign for tougher regulations on water use, such as prohibitions on using drinkable water for irrigation purposes or for washing cars.
Meanwhile, Águas do Algarve, the body responsible for the supply of water to the public, is supplementing dwindling supplies in the reservoirs through the use of nine boreholes in the Querença-Silves region. Another dozen are expected to be opened over the next few weeks.
Cattle die in Alentejo
Summer-like weather in the middle of winter is having devastating effects in the Alentejo, where, according to the Association of Southern Sheep Farmers, about
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3,000 sheep have died of starvation since last November. Shortage of water has additionally caused a substantial proportion of the crops in the Beja district to fail and it is anticipated that in areas such as Roxo, many farmers will be unable to plant crops at all this year.
With irrigation bans already in force in some areas, fears are now passing to the quality of water left for human consumption as reservoir levels drop and the warm weather encourages the multiplication of harmful aquatic bacteria.
At the same time, experts have lashed out at the nation’s lack of strategy in dealing with the crisis. Eugénio Sequeira, spokesman for the League for the Protection of Nature, stated recently in the Público newspaper: “There can be no justification for the death of cattle, since, in Mediterranean regimes, farmers have to put by fodder for these situations. This is what is done in other countries, but here everyone just waits for the State to help them.”
However, he added that, “while the farmers should take preventative measures in the short-term, it is the role of the State to look after the long-term, promoting drought mitigation measures.”
Such measures would include the creation of cattle fodder reserves, improving water retention in the soil through increased use of water channels and the implementation of strict rules on water use, as soon as future drought conditions become a possibility – with some areas of the country being subject to tighter water-use controls all year round.