Water highway: solutions to drought exist, but is government ready to take them?

Association makes case for north-south water pipeline

Portugal’s galloping drought (with 34% of mainland territory now classified as in severe or extreme drought) is neither ‘a surprise’ nor exclusive to this country. The whole of southern Europe is ‘gasping for water’. France has already banned citizens from washing cars, watering gardens, filling swimming pools. But Portugal has been strangely quiet about restrictions; quieter still about possible solutions.

Even in the south, where the situation is worst; where farmers are stressing they “cannot cope, will have to put down livestock”, entities seem to be tip-toeing around the issue.

Water supply company Águas do Algarve, for example, is planning “two roadshows to target schoolchildren, a magic show and a fun educational activity in which water will be the main character”. Without querying the money involved in this exercise, one has to ask – how will this save the little water the region has left?

The week has been significant for two interventions – both exposing authorities for a glaring incapacity to respond.

First, golf courses in the Algarve (responsible for only 6% of water consumption) gave an interview to State news agency Lusa, effectively saying they are desperate to be connected to wastewater treatment plants – so that this byproduct can be used to irrigate greens instead of fresh water – but that “very few concrete steps have been taken”.

The sector’s leaders “regret” that measures that need to be put in place “are late in being implemented”, says Lusa.

This is putting the situation diplomatically: Pedro Lopes, director of the Pestana Group in the Algarve, stressed there are “a series of measures that have been planned for years and are still not getting off the ground”.

Besides connecting courses to wastewater treatment plants, measures that have not moved forwards include the pressing need to repair structural leaks within mains networks that effectively waste millions of cubic metres every year.

The second significant moment this week came from the country’s oldest civic association, SEDES – a collection of observatories dedicated to issues including agriculture and economic policies. SEDES founders, according to the association’s official website, came from different academic backgrounds, social strata, professional activities and political options (…) united “by a great desire for change and a diversified social militancy”. And SEDES has suggested it is time to ‘think outside the box’ altogether.

Portugal’s “situation of drought” – which IPMA stressed on Wednesday now covers almost 90% of mainland territory – is not actually a water deficit, it is a “distribution problem”, says SEDES.

Northern areas have no drought – ergo why not transfer water from north to south?

Said the association – also using Lusa as its conduit – “If it is true that in the south annual precipitation has been lower, it is no less true that extreme rainfall phenomena also occurs – an example being what happened last autumn (referring here to the dramatic floods in Lisbon and Porto); north of the Tejo river water resources are relatively abundant.

“In the south, there are good soils and larger agricultural areas, but there is no water. In the north, the land is less suitable for agricultural production, with smaller plots and plenty of water.

“It is, therefore, urgent to put into practice solutions already studied and identified so that Portugal is prepared to face these climatic phenomena, avoid desertification of some areas, keep populations in these regions and maintain territorial cohesion.

“It is necessary to adjust availability to needs, from human consumption to industry, tourism, agriculture or even new energy sources; absolutely essential to increase water reserves in the south” (meaning more dams and reservoirs).

“The country has about 47,000 h3 (cubic hectolitres) in water drainage and the total annual consumption of all activities is about 5,900 h3 – 1% of this water is enough to irrigate 100,000 hectares. It’s easy to understand how much is wasted into the sea”.

And finally to the possibility already raised by readers of the Resident – the transferring water from north to south, “integrating river basins of Douro, Tejo, Guadiana and Sado, bringing water from Minho to Algarve, in a true ‘water highway'”.

SEDES urges “real commitment and political will” to solve the problem of water resources “on behalf of the national interest”.

Again, this could be a diplomatic way of saying – “why is there no commitment or political will to protect the country?”

Why is the government seemingly content to (most recently) appeal to Brussels for a series of measures available to territories that have reached the 40% drought mark? (These measures are essentially to cover farmers, to help them purchase animal feed due to lack of available pasture. Measures also allow for ‘resting’ pastures to be brought back online).

Why are ‘restrictions’ an apparent anathema? And why are large scale monocultures still drawing liberally from aquifers? (This last question has particularly concerned readers around Odiáxere where a ‘new’ mega avocado project has just been planted out).

“There is no moisture left in the soil”

In Alcoutim, “the fields are already completely dry”, mayor Osvaldo Gonçalves has told Lusa. “There is no moisture left in the soil”. The little town in the northeastern part of the Algarve is already drawing from water reserves it would normally use in the summer, while producers elsewhere are describing harvests decimated. Carobs, for example, are down by 40%-50%, and are markedly smaller this year, due to the lack of rainfall.

Desalination: so many unanswered questions

Since visiting the region in January and suggesting the Algarve could, in the end, have two desalination plants (when exactly and how they will be financed, we were not told), environment minister Duarte Cordeiro answered none of the difficult questions – two of which concern the enormous energy costs of desalination and the toxic byproducts.

PSD Algarve has already complained that this issue is ‘not transparent’ – but in a way it is: it is transparently clear that the very costs of desalination would a) make water increasingly expensive to end users, and b) create large quantities of brine.

Brine cannot be disposed of easily. Yes, an off-the-record call to a government entity elicited the response that “it will be taken out to sea, far out – where it won’t cause any kind of problem”, but that cannot be taken seriously, as we have entities in this country set up to protect the environment…

On this score, Público this week has grasped the nettle in a text entitled: “Portugal has no strategy for water but uses it at will”.

The country’s ‘permanent commission’ designed to “prevent, monitor and accompany” drought met two weeks ago (for the 13th time in six years) to announce measures like the prohibition of new greenhouses in the Alentejo, says the paper. “In times of a climate crisis, specialists stress this is the time for structural measures – not reactive ones – that combat water scarcity.”

By Natasha Donn
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