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Portugal: Water scarcity weighs on drought-stricken economy

, June 5, 2023, 0 Comments

portugal-water-scarcity-marketexpress-inIn mainland Europe’s westernmost country, water is becoming scarce. But activists point out that Portuguese politicians continue to focus on economic activities that consume particularly large amounts of water.

Around 30% of tap water in Portugal seeps into the ground unused because supply networks are not modernized. Moreover, about 80% of the country’s water supply  far too much according to experts  is consumed by agriculture, while almost 10% of valuable drinking water is poured onto the lawns of golf courses to please tourists.

Portugal’s lavish use of water amounts to sheer luxury given that 89% of the country’s land area is dry, with about 40% of it currently being affected by severe drought. But no one seems to be really worried about the country’s water scarcity.

“There’s a drought and it’s going to get worse,” Joaquim Pocas Martins, a water management expert at the University of Porto, told DW. “But because we have a good water supply and water is constantly gushing out of all the taps, the citizens aren’t really aware of it.”

Nor, apparently, do politicians, noted Francisco Ferreira, an associate professor at NOVA University Lisbon. “We should have had a national water plan for a long time to use this valuable resource sustainably. But there isn’t one. That’s why in crises like this, there’s just rather useless activism,” he said.

‘An ecological crime’

The experts agree that Portugal’s industrial agriculture is the main culprit, as it relies on the wrong crops and uses too much water because of outdated irrigation methods.

Environmental engineer Catarina Rodrigues explains the issue, citing problems resulting from a 600-hectare (1,482-acre) avocado plantation currently being planned in Portugal’s southern Algarve region.

“Avocados need an extremely large amount of water, which is already in short supply in the region. This is an ecological crime,” the activist working for the nonprofit organization Quercus told DW.

However, the Agriculture Ministry has enthusiastically supported the project and has allowed more and more plantations, particularly in the water-scarce south of the country. Avocados and berries are now growing there on ever larger farms  even in protected landscapes  because there are huge profits to make.

Water table is sinking

Water management expert Joaquim Pocas Martins thinks increasing commercialization could be beneficial. “Even if it’s politically incorrect to say so, we should produce as much of it as possible. Blackberries, for example, can even be exported by air and still bring good money,” he said.

He noted, however, that it would be better if the plants would be irrigated with desalinated water, which might be more expensive but would still allow farmers to carve out a profit.

As major desalination plants don’t yet exist in Portugal, most farmers drill for water illegally, said Catarina Rodrigues. That has only compounded the problem of sinking groundwater tables in various regions of the country.

Rodrigues blames the paper and cellulose industry, which has planted huge swaths of land with eucalyptus monocultures.

“The eucalyptus plantations represent an economic sector worth around €5 billion,” said Pocas Martins, who served a few years as deputy secretary in Portugal’s Environment Ministry.

As the Portuguese government is seeking to balance industrial and farming interests with those of water management needs, NOVA University’s Ferreira doubts there will ever be a compromise. “Eucalyptus is a monoculture. We need to focus on diversity and resilience and manage water resources responsibly. Otherwise, our landscapes will not survive the next forest fires, nor the next drought,” he said.

And then there are the tourists

In Portugal’s Algarve region, which is hugely popular with tourists from across Europe, excessive and uncontrolled groundwater extraction along the coastal strip has now led to salt water mixing with the groundwater, rendering it unusable and damaging the soil.

But tourism needs huge amounts of water, and the Algarve was visited by a record number of tourists in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic. With the 2023 holiday season just beginning, early bookings suggest that even more tourists could come to Portugal this year.

Tourism is a main money-spinner, meaning water resources are bound to suffer even more, said Ferreira. “Mass tourism means extremely high water consumption for regions like the Algarve,” he said, explaining that travel companies rely on a steady water supply.

“And then there’s golf, which Portugal promotes so heavily and has expanded massively,” Ferreira added, noting that Portugal pours about 8% of its available drinking water onto its 40 existing golf courses. Only three use treated wastewater. “We still have a lot to do, especially in recycling wastewater.”