by EMMA BERTENSHAW [email protected]
Over the past few months, the noticeable absence of rain has been affecting a large proportion of the country, including the Algarve.
Figures released by the Instituto de Meteorologia (IM ) – Meteorological Institute – show that in some cases it has not rained for 31 straight days and this has led to three quarters of the country being placed on a severe drought warning.
The conditions have been comparable to a similar drought in 2005 – and it was more than three times drier last month compared with January 2011.
As well as the lack of rain, it has also been a lot cooler than normal due to a high pressure weather system lingering over the Iberian Peninsula.
The coldest parts of the country included places like Miranda do Douro at –10.2ºC and Carrazeda de Ansiães at -9.5ºC in the north of Portugal.
Last week, Minister for Agriculture Assunção Cristas met with her Spanish counterpart Arias Cañete at a meeting in Lisbon to discuss joint concerns about drought and approaching the EU Council for assistance.
Assunção Cristas said: “We are following the same path to ensure a stronger presence within the European Union.”
At a parliamentary meeting on Tuesday, she said: “We need further evidence before we can apply for EU assistance but I guarantee the government is doing everything it can to make the necessary surveys.”
Drought affecting fruit production
A dry beginning to the year has particularly affected the citrus market, producing oranges that are a lot smaller due to the lack of water.
Market standards require oranges to measure 73mm in diameter and many in the crop this month are below that, leaving farmers with no choice but to send their produce to be juiced instead. This results in a much lower price.
Horácio Ferreira, the director of Agricultural Cooperative for Citrus in the Algarve (CACIAL) told news agency Lusa: “Oranges are not growing as much as in other years because irrigation systems are based on the groundwater. Rainwater produces much larger fruit.”
He felt that the problem lay mainly with the commercial need for standardisation.
Fruit and vegetables are usually required to have a standard minimum size set by large retailers and supermarkets. They pay approximately 12 to 18 cents a kilo for oranges while industrial juice producers will pay around 10 cents a kilo for smaller fruit.
Meanwhile, the cost for farmers to harvest their crop stays the same and it is feared that many will go bankrupt as a result.
Horácio Ferreira lamented the fact that production yield has been a lot higher this year actually as a result of the lack of rain and, under normal circumstances, the farmers would actually have a profit from the drought.
Despite the strict guidelines set by supermarket chains, there are, however, quite a number of local farmers’ markets dotted across the Algarve and opportunities to buy oranges where the quality is the same as those found in the supermarket.
Algarve deputy Miguel Freitas of PS (Socialist Party) held a meeting on February 20 with a number of organisations involved in the citrus production in the Algarve to discuss what problems were being faced due to the drought and frost.
The meeting followed a visit to a farm and production plant to get a clear idea of the issues faced by local farmers.
Dairy farmers face rising costs of cattle maintenance
Cattle have been badly affected due to the lack of grazing as well as water and, in some cases, farmers have had to supplement their diet with extra feed and imported straw. There have also been reports of cattle deaths.
Assunção Cristas visited an agricultural school and the Danone yoghurt factory in Castelo Branco on February 20 and has also announced that the first PRODER (Programa de Desenvolvimento Rural – Rural development programme) monies, to the tune of €52 million, are to be paid on Monday, February 27.
In March, PRODER will be opening a new tender, amounting to €50 million, for investments to be made in the agriculture sector, mainly in the Alentejo region.
In the meantime, a rise in milk production costs is anticipated due to the knock-on effect of dry feed cost increases which have in turn been affected by rising oil prices.
Increased fire risk
Another concern with the lack of rain is the risk of fires. This is an annual threat for Portugal and with the current severe drought warnings, the government is taking measures to assess the risk.
Minister for Internal Affairs Miguel Macedo met with management from the Liga de Bombeiros Portugueses (LBP) – League of Portuguese Firefighters, on Tuesday last week to discuss the effects of the drought.
In an interview with TSF radio late last week, he said: “It is obviously a concern to us all…not only the issue of fires but also supplying water to people will be difficult in some areas of the country.”
At Burga in the north-east of the country for instance, the reservoir dam is currently at 30% of the total capacity.
The president of the LBP, Jaime Marta Soares, contacted Miguel Macedo asking for financial support to be given to humanitarian associations that have been helping the firefighting effort of recent wildfires.
“If not,” he said, “it is feared that we will lose the operational capacity of many of these forces.”
Following the meeting, Jaime Marta Soares reported that he had the minister’s “absolute guarantee” that funding would become available in a timely manner to relieve over 30 corporations currently facing financial difficulties.
In the Algarve, there have also been reports of early fires breaking out in the winter months.
In December last year, the Algarve Resident covered news of a campaign worth €4 million that was to provide resources for 17 fire stations across the Algarve.
As well as purchasing new protective clothing, helmets and respiration equipment, the Algarve Câmaras Association (AMAL) also reported that specialist tactical vehicles were purchased, able to handle forest fires as well as urban environments.
The IM reports that they expect the first rain to arrive at the end of the month, which will be welcome news.
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