Barragem do Alto Lindoso, Ponte da Barca, showing alarmingly low levels on February 21 - Photo: PEDRO SARMENTO COSTA/LUSA

Over 90% of Portuguese mainland in situation of severe or extreme drought

In a week in which over 90% of the Portuguese mainland has been classified as in a situation of severe or extreme drought, the government has announced a €5 million cash injection to help with solutions.

Talking in Lisbon on Wednesday as environmental agency APA was in the Algarve leading its first meeting with council leaders to discuss what is needed, environment minister João Pedro Matos Fernandes stressed “the situation of drought in Portugal is not conjunctural, it is structural. In the six years that I have been minister, there has only been one in which it wasn’t necessary to decree measures to protect us, and that was last year…”

The problems, however, have been bristling for weeks, essentially because farmers are at their wits’ ends.

The average rainfall for the first fortnight of February was just 7% of the average over a 30-year period, IPMA (meteorological institute) has explained.

If this wasn’t bad enough, the prices of feed, fuel and fertilizers have all increased through the winter due to other factors. Producers, between a rock and a hard place, are demanding “direct support” and a relaxation of rules – for example, they want to see land ‘resting’ opened up as pasture, as well as areas of ecological interest “where there are still some weeds”.

They are hoping the effects of the drought can qualify for indemnities through ‘harvest insurance’ (as has been allowed in Spain), and they are asking for Social Security payments to be ‘frozen’.

Rui Garrido of FAABA (the federation of associations of farmers from the Baixo Alentejo) says another concern is how to charge for the little production that will come this year. Prices of everything produced, meat included, will simply have to go up.

Meantime, in Brussels, Minister for Agriculture Maria do Céu Antunes has promised “immediate and short-term measures”, without really explaining what these might be.

They ‘could be’ incorporating the drought into the (aid) programme relating to financial impacts of the pandemic, she said; they could be ‘advances’ on payments for rural development that were scheduled to arrive in October; it all depends on decisions at a European level.

The minister accepted also that solutions may not be much, but she hopes they might serve for farmers to cope in the short-term.

In other words, the way ahead is nebulous in the extreme, as the short/medium-range weather forecast appears to be devoid of any meaningful rain (the Algarve and Alentejo regions are expecting some rain this week).

Can the situation get any worse? IPMA showed that it could: “There is the possibility of a heat wave,” it reported on Monday.

Tuesday saw temperatures rise to 25ºC in Setúbal, Santarém and Leiria, with all other districts likely to get 20ºC until at least the end of the week.

What the meeting in Brussels did highlight was that the European Commission believes the strategy for facing drought “has to be oriented in the combat of climate change”. This is not a short-term strategy.

DN admits this, stressing, “in other words, combat of drought has to be long-term” by “accelerating agricultural transition to sustainable resilient methods”, which contribute to “climate neutrality”.

European Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dali, extolled the “opportunities” of the new PAC (common agricultural policy) which, she claims, will help the sector to adapt and the commission encourages Portugal and Spain to make use of this possibility.

For farmers wondering how to feed hungry cattle, this was advice from a distant planet.

“Inserted into the long-term plans to combat drought, Brussels took to the agricultural council a regulation on entrance into the European market of products associated with deforestation and forestry degradation,” explains DN.

Brussels considers that “forests assure the continuous repositioning of hydric resources” (water) and guarantee “prevention of drought and its negative effects on local communities”.

“The drastic reduction of deforestation and forestry degradation, and the systemic restoration of forests and other ecosystems are the greatest opportunity for nature-based climate change mitigation”, said a text presented to the meeting – which somehow seemed to miss the fact that in Portugal at least, forests tend to burn in the summer months – and in the summer months of years of drought, they will be more vulnerable than ever.

How will the €5 million be spent?
According to minister Matos Fernandes, the €5 million will be spent on ‘awareness campaigns and contingency solutions’ (meaning the organising of water transportation in container trucks when necessary, the cleaning of some reservoirs to increase their water prism).

Mr Matos Fernandes has already opened the way for reducing water usage in terms of “agricultural activity and other urban activities”, but nothing has been defined, nor will it be until the various APA meetings have taken place – albeit we can be certain that activities like the watering of green spaces, washing of streets and ‘certain equipments’ will be suspended.

Also remaining suspended for the time being is the generation of hydro-power in five national dams.

The minister stressed that the overriding focus is on conserving water for human consumption, which, he claims, the country will be able to do with current supplies for another two years, even if it doesn’t rain, “which is an unthinkable scenario”.

One point not mentioned in any of the syndicated ‘drought stories’ this week is the level of water ‘wastage’ still blighting Portugal’s mains supply system. According to the latest report by water regulatory authority ERSAR, 534 million litres of water are lost per day. That translates into 195 billion litres per year, or 28.7% of non-paid water usage.

To give an idea of how much that means in terms of consumption (or rather ‘lost consumption’), the average monthly water usage of a typical family is 10,000 litres (€25.48).