S.W.A.M. – Save Water And Money

My wife and I decided to make a life changing move some months ago and came to live in Portugal. We forsook the rat race of England to embrace a lifestyle that has slowly grown on us after visiting the Algarve for over 22 years.

Having spent thousands of hours of spare time creating gardens for our personal pleasure, I am appalled at the blatant waste of water, a most precious commodity, that occurs daily in the Algarve, an area that can least afford to squander this dwindling asset.

Over the past months, while setting up the restoration of an old farm in Monchique, we have been exceptionally lucky to stay in a number of luxurious villas owned by friends. Everyday, we have watched in horror as thousands of litres of water have been randomly sprayed about the gardens by automated systems in order to “keep them green”. These systems have cost our friends hundreds of euros in water bills and, most of the time, they have not been in Portugal to get any benefit.

This is total madness in a country ridden by drought, where animals are already dying through lack of water in the Alentejo region and water stocks are at one of their lowest ever levels.

These irrigation systems are a curse for a number of reasons. They indiscriminately spray both plants and bare soil for set periods every day, even days when it has rained cats and dogs. During eight months of the year, most of this water evaporates within an hour or two, benefiting the subsoil not one jot, and does not encourage roots to search for moisture, so root growth is shallow. This, in itself, is acceptable as long as spraying continues daily and you continue to pay dearly for the privilege – stop it and the plants will die.

Everybody wants a green lawn, in many cases just for the short periods that they are visiting their villas, or perhaps for rent paying clients. To create these green lawns, sprinklers are used frequently everyday and more than once in summer. This creates shallow roots and no plant strength. Shut off the sprinklers and the lawns will die – very quickly.

I am frankly amazed that the Portuguese government has not put a total ban on the use of garden irrigation systems in order to preserve water. Those of you who only visit occasionally are perhaps not aware of how potentially catastrophic the situation is. How will you feel when you arrive at your villa to find that no water comes out of the taps, the toilets will not flush and supermarkets have sold out of five litre bottles? It could happen!

But there is another way. It means thought and planning, and very little capital cost. In the long run, it will save thousands of euros in water bills for those with garden irrigation systems and it will save millions of litres of water for the benefit of people, as opposed to plants, but still produce beautiful gardens with hardier, more self-reliant plants.

There is another blatant waste of ‘free water’. It falls from the sky (though not so much recently) and is called rain. Modern villa design allows it to run off roofs and simply soak away or run into drains. By collecting and harvesting rain, huge amounts of money can be saved on water bills. It just takes a bit of thought, a little money and a desire to contribute to this country which we all profess to love. At the moment, we are simply raping it of its most precious commodity after sun.

I am not simply ‘banging a drum’. An engineer by training and a gardener by choice, I intend to pursue this subject and educate people that there is a different way…a better way.

P.J. Avery, Lagos