Lack of water in Sado river threatens Alentejo rice production
Pego do Altar Dam

Lack of water in Sado river threatens Alentejo rice production

Lack of water in the Sado river is threatening the production of rice in the Alentejo – one of Portugal’s oldest rice-producing areas.

Farmers are caught between a rock and a hard place.

They aren’t receiving the amount of water they need – and to make use of water diverted from the Alqueva dam will cost them ‘too much’: rice cannot be ‘cost effective’ if it sells for more than 60 cents a kilo.

The quandary was aired by national media throughout the weekend.

This latest ‘crisis’ in rice production comes because two local dams – Vale de Gaio and Pego e Alter are critically low. The former is running at just over 18% capacity, the latter at less than 11%.

The ‘solution’ offered growers is to pay for ‘discharges’ of water into Vale de Gaio from Alqueva. There is even the plan to create a direct link between Pego do Altar and Alqueva.

But the problem is the cost of each cubic metre.

Say reports, charges are 12-13 cents more than growers currently pay for water from the local dams, and cumulatively, this would make all their efforts in producing rice pointless as it would need to be sold at a price that consumers further down the line are unlikely to accept.

Stresses Joaquim Manuel Lopes of the association of Setúbal district growers, “the State should be distributing water liberally and equally to all farmers for the same price, whether they are in Viana do Castelo or the Algarve”.

Water supply specialists see the situation differently, suggesting some areas (particularly Alcácer do Sal) may have to change ‘crops’ and start growing foodstuffs that can survive on limited water.

As all the articles agree, this situation isn’t new, and it is unlikely to improve long-term.

Other rivers too are suffering from lack of water – particularly the Tejo which gets its supplies ‘rationed’ by Spain which controls discharges.

Nélson Carriço, lecturer in hydraulics and water resources at Setúbal polytechnic, says Spain is actually breaking the terms of the Albufeira Convention which establishes rules for the management of the Iberian Peninsula’s international river basins.

“We are a downstream country”, he told reporters. “That is, the water comes from Spain – and Spain controls the flow that comes into Portugal.

“The Albufeira Convention provides for minimum flows, but often in summer these minimum flows are not checked. In other words there is a clear violation of the agreements.

“The Portuguese Government can always intervene with the Spanish Government, draw its attention to the situation, but what has happened repeatedly in the Tejo is the violation of the [minimum] flow rates”.

Minister for the environment and energy transition João Pedro Matos Fernandes has been pressured over this issue for months. Last weekend he pledged to renegotiate with Spain over minimum flows into the Tejo, while the government’s plan is also to construct a new dam on the river.

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