Water remains Algarve’s ‘elephant in the room’
Barragem da Bravura, October 2022. This is what drought looks like... there is no water in certain parts of the dam at all... Photo posted on 'Barragem da Bravura' Facebook page by Pascoal MG who rightly calls it a "sad reality"

Water remains Algarve’s ‘elephant in the room’

Mayors “extremely worried” about likely lack of supply

The welcome rain that fell on Portugal last month is long gone – and the southern part of the country particularly is still in almost exactly the same dire predicament as it has been all year.

As Público explains, mayors in the Algarve are “extremely worried”.

A study by the University of the Algarve has stressed the high probability of water rationing (put another way: taps running dry), and yet, bizarrely, certain municipalities have ‘reopened municipal swimming pools’ (closed to conserve water during the summer), on the basis that they serve the well-being of the community.

Nothing appears to be consequent: Portugal’s ‘water saving measures’ (introduced by environment minister Duarte Cordeiro) have resulted in what Público calls “a drop of water in the middle of a desert” – in fact in August, water consumption INCREASED by 2.2% on figures for 2019.

Anyone living in the Algarve will see car wash outlets working as normal; there is no ‘hose pipe ban’ in place anywhere; municipalities can still be seen watering planted areas – and water and theme parks carried on through the summer as normal.

The new ‘hydrological year’ started on October 1, with roughly 90 million cubic metres available in Algarve dams, while estimates point to “the need for 110 million cubic metres”.

In other words, if it doesn’t rain significantly this winter life as we know it is likely to take another worrying lurch in the wrong direction.

A meeting of regional mayors last week heard that ‘solutions’ could involve ‘re-using water used to clean municipal pool filters’ for the cleaning of refuse containers and streets – and opting for ‘untreated water’ when it comes to supplies needed for the construction sector.

But all this is ‘small potatoes’. A grown-up solution, like desalination, would require large sums of money and a great deal of meticulous planning – none of which are being rushed to the fore.

Hence the study by the University of the Algarve, stressing the ‘window’ in which to face this issue is reducing.

Investigator Nuno Loureiro tells Público: “The system is close to collapse”. Measures are needed now. This ‘crisis’ cannot be treated like the ‘crisis’ of an obsolete airport in Lisbon, he warned. Lisbon’s problem means ‘less planes arriving’; the Algarve’s will mean hundreds of thousands of households literally running out of water.

What does that suggest for the tourist industry? The driver of our local economy?

Hélder Martins, the president of Algarve hoteliers association AHETA, is under no illusions.

He has told SOL in an interview about all the issues facing his sector (rising costs/ lack of available trained personnel) that “if it doesn’t rain, we will only have water available for human consumption to October next year”.

That will ‘cover’ the 2023 tourist season, and then leave residents counting the cost.

Said Martins, the writing has been on the wall since the drought of 2005, and while Spanish authorities addressed it with the construction of various desalination infrastructures, Portuguese chose not to. Now, a desalination solution is impossible, he says, before 2027 (and that is being optimistic).

Optimism remains the ‘last hope’. Hélder Martins told SOL he believes the rain will come.