Researcher highlights ‘crunchpoint’ looming
For all the talk of floods in north and central areas, the truth is that the recent very welcome autumn rains have barely touched the sides of a gathering water crisis in Southern Portugal.
While dams in the north and centre are doing ‘very well thank you’, dams down south are not. In fact three have actually lost water recently – showing the rain has not kept up with demand.
And then there is the ‘talk of desalination plants’… not one in the Algarve, but two – without any concrete steps advanced, nor serious studies undertaken (as experts have stressed, desalination comes with extremely heavy costs, both financial and in terms of the environment).
Suggestions of a water highway – something that makes perfect sense on paper at least, (northern areas have more rain than they ‘need’, while southern areas are visibly desertifying) – have seemingly been dismissed by politicians as fanciful. Again, without any kind of technical explanation/s.
Now, State news agency Lusa carries two ‘warning’ articles, citing Algarve university professor Nuno Loureiro who is convinced we are being allowed to sleepwalk into a new crisis.
“We have the health crisis, which is on the news everyday – it’s dramatic and it is a crisis through lack of planning. We have the housing crisis” (arguably also brought about through lack of planning), “which is now a little less talked about because we are busy with what is happening in Palestine/ Gaza – and in the very short term we are going to have a water crisis…” he told his interviewers.
Unless it rains in proverbial buckets through the next few months, Nuno Loureiro knows a “water crisis is going to break out in full force” affecting the Algarve and Alentejo areas.
Holding a doctorate in geosciences and hydrology, this researcher has the benefit of data, of studies.
He tells Lusa it is “frightening” to see the fall in water levels of Odelouca dam (they have dropped 15 metres since January 2022), yet the dam represents a third of the Algarve’s reserves… Put this way, the dimension of the region’s gathering crisis starts coming into sharp perspective.
As Loureiro stresses: “We’re having some rain in the Algarve, and that rain is starting to give a feeling that the problems are being solved, but objectively they’re not being solved. If we compare the end of September with the end of October this year – and we’re talking about surface reserves, in other words, the six reservoirs in the Algarve – we’ve had an increase in useful water storage of not even 1%”.
He went on to give the example of the volume of water in the Algarve’s reservoirs at the end of September and the end of October, which went “from 64.5 million to 66.6 million (cubic metres)”, a figure that “gives a certain feeling that things have improved” but which “translates into a 0.6% increase in useful water reserves”.
Water reserves at the Odeleite and Beliche reservoirs, in the Algarve’s eastern Sotavento sub-region, “rose a little, around 3%”, but in the western Barlavento sub-region “Odelouca hasn’t changed” and the other three reservoirs: Bravura, Funcho and Arade, have decreased.
“This shows that at the start of the 2023/2024 hydrological year, the same phenomenon (of decreasing rainfall) is occurring as in previous years: the eastern part is able to receive some more rainfall, but the western part is not.”
Comparing data from the end of October with the same period in 2022, surface water storage in the region dropped from 91.8 million cubic metres to 66.6 million cubic metres.
“This means that at the end of October, compared to the same period last year, we have 6.3% less reserves,” he said, with eastern dams “better off than they were at the end of October last year”, but the other four in the region “worse off”.
Bottom line: “The reserves we have no longer guarantee a year (of consumption) – or they guarantee it with many limitations. And faced with this situation, there are no easy answers, no easy solutions – but there are solutions that have to be adopted and that involve serious planning and monitoring”.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
One of the areas for action to make water consumption more sustainable is domestic consumption, which should be “managed by price, not by rosy advertising campaigns“.
Loureiro also cited “things that are completely unthinkable in today’s Algarve”, such as the “spread of private swimming pools“, which he described as “absurd” in the current scenario of water scarcity.
In calling for what Lusa terms “greater planning and monitoring, using tools such as satellite images, which show an increase in irrigated areas in the Algarve over time”, what Loureiro is really advocating is a term of ‘spying’
“If you look at images from the 1980s, you can see how small the citrus grove in Silves is, you can see how modest the whole area to the north and south of the EN 125 road between Tavira and Vila Real de Santo António is. In recent years, if you look at images from 2018, 2020, 2022, you can see that it’s growing more and more and it’s being watered more and more”.
This tool allows “careful monitoring of water use” and is not being used properly by technical and political decision-makers, but “this has to start.
“This satellite image makes it possible, using the different image bands, to perfectly characterise the hydric state of the vegetation,” he said.
“You can see, for example, if vegetation that is “very satisfied with water is being watered” and this information can be cross-referenced with “possible sources of water, including illegal boreholes” and/ or “reservoirs that should not be supplying water” (because they are too low), “but continue to do so…”
These tools “have to start being used because the issue is very serious (…) even if it rains a little more this winter, it might ease the pain a little, but it’s no remedy” for the problem facing the region, which is a slow desertification as rainfall becomes steadily less and less frequent.
Source material: LUSA