North-South water highway plan unites Algarve decision-makers

Region’s ‘movers and shakers’ start mobilising against ongoing drought

Algarve political leaders have seized the day – ironically a very wet day – to mobilise against the Algarve’s desperate situation of drought.

Today’s welcome downpours – courtesy of Depression Aline – are unlikely to change the  situation of water shortages throughout the region that have been worsening by the year for well over a decade. 

So, at the conference “Water and Sustainability”, taking place at the University of the Algarve in Faro, those in positions of influence convened to try and “create a consensus” – a path forwards.

Lusa reports that they want this to involve the carrying out of studies into the construction of a second desalination plant (to complement the one already planned for Albufeira) and for a water highway, carrying water from north to southa plan most recently suggested by the country’s oldest civic association, SEDES.

José Apolinário, president of the Algarve CCDR (commission for coordination and regional development) told the event the equivalent of ‘there is no time to lose’: the climate in the south is changing “at a rate greater” than previously anticipated, thus there is a necessity for agreement on how to combat the lack of water in the region.

A plan to pipe water from the Alentejo’s Alqueva dam “cannot be put to one side; nor can the idea of a north-south water highway – periodically suggested and more than often ‘discounted’ as too logistically complicated.

We have to break with the prejudice over transferring water from the north to the south”, António Pina, president of AMAL (the Algarve’s intermunicipal community) and mayor of Olhão agreed. “Water that falls in the north, has to reach the south”, he went on.

It’s an argument that makes even more sense when one considers dams in the north frequently have to release water because they are too full. The drought previously attributed to the north has already ‘disappeared’ thanks to September’s rainfall, while the situation in the Algarve is almost just as acute as it was in August.

Desalination meantime is the most expensive, energy consuming way of making up for water shortages. Nonetheless, it is a plan already ‘set in stone’ by the government. The conference seemed to agree that having only one plant in the Algarve ‘makes no sense’: there needs to be two (a site in Lagos has been mentioned in the past).

Finally, there was unanimity on the belief that “we cannot simply wait for rain” – something that local politicians have very much done in the past.

This was, nonetheless, ‘just a conference’. We will have to wait to see what spills over now into political policies. 

José Pimenta Machado , vice president of APA (the Portuguese environment agency) said that “other solutions”, like those discussed today, were welcome in theory “but at this moment, the focus is on executing the RRP for Portugal (the recovery and resilience plan)”, which has no mention of a second desalination plant, nor of a water highway… “Everything should be analysed”, was as far as Mr Machado seemed prepared to go.

Says Lusa, Águas do Algarve has delivered its environmental impact study on the future desalination plant for the Algarve, and is awaiting APA’s greenlight to open tenders for its construction. The plant “should be located in Albufeira, will be financed by the RRP with an investment of around €50 million.

“The desalination plant will produce 16 million cubic metres of water (per year), which translates into around 20% of the requirements for public supply in the Algarve, estimated at 72 million cubic metres , according to APA”.

What has not been explained in any way at this point is the likely high costs of drinking water when it is available through desalination; nor the consequences to the environment, in terms of both energy usage and damaging by-products, like brine.

Brine can not easily be ‘dumped’ (without damaging ecosystems) and has limited demand.

A UN-backed paper (“The state of desalination and brine production: A global outlook“) explains that for every litre of de-salinated water produced, the desalination process creates an average of 1.5 litres of brine.

None of this has yet been properly explained to the public which might prefer the least expensive option if they understood the costs – a water highway bringing ‘real water’ from north to south.

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