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Water here, but not there…

ECO123 spoke with the Administration of the Algarve Hydrographic Region, (Administração da Região Hidrográfica do Algarve) part of, the Environment Agency, (Agência Portuguesa do Ambiente) based in Faro. The office in Faro has responsibility for the Algarve. There are five main offices across Portugal and the other offices have responsibility for the Alentejo, Tejo, the North and the Centre.

The Environment Agency has five strategic goals: to increase the level of protection, recovery and enhancement of the ecosystem; to increase the level of protection of people and goods in a risk situation; to improve the knowledge and information available about the environment; to reinforce public participation and ensure the involvement of the relevant public institutions; and to guarantee an excellent performance in all assignments. Paula Noronha, Head of the Division for Planning and Information (Chefe de Divisão de Planeamento e Informação) and Paulo Cruz, her colleague, work in the department which is responsible for analysing the quality and the quantity of water and for measuring groundwater.

What is the water situation here?
Paulo Cruz: It is all about good water management, as there are two types of drought. There is a meteorological drought caused by a lack of rain and very high temperatures over a long period. This has a damaging impact on farmers and small to medium-sized growers where water is sourced from wells and boreholes. The second type of drought is hydrological. This involves rivers, dams and underground water sources. If the water cycle is interrupted by a lack of rain, the aquifers do not fill up and the rivers turn dry.

What about the increase in visitors because of tourism? Does that put pressure on water resources?
Paulo Cruz: Water is allocated in three ways: to the public, agriculture and tourism. In the past, vast amounts of water were used for agriculture, but this has changed as the economic base has moved from agriculture to tourism.

Paula Noronha: When we say tourism, we mean essentially golf courses and hotels.

Paulo Cruz: For most of the year, there is a population of about half a million people in the Algarve, but in July it increases to two million. Currently, there is enough water.

Is it more of a problem further north, because of a different type of industry? For example, the paper industry and because of the fires?
Paula Noronha: No, we monitor how much water is used by industry, agricultural companies, tourism and the public through the issue of licences.

Paulo Cruz: We have some rules for preventing
problems. For example, we do not allow boreholes near the ocean because these allow seawater to seep into the water supply system.

So how does it work with boreholes?
Paulo Cruz:
It is important to understand that groundwater is protected by the Portuguese Constitution. Groundwater is a private resource. Landowners have a right to use the water under their ground. This is not the case in other countries, for example in the UK or Germany. When a producer asks to grow citrus, for example, we only look to see if the water extraction will affect the aquifers before granting a licence. There are instances where, if the new borehole reduces water for other people, we do not allow it and we refuse to grant a licence. For example, perhaps you have a home with a beautiful view and one day someone builds in front of your house and takes away the view. The law in Portugal does not protect your view. We cannot go beyond the law. The distance between two boreholes must be 100 metres. If our tests indicate there is enough water for a borehole to be closer, we can issue a licence for a shorter distance. It is about the level of water over an extended period. The goal is to evaluate the situation over time. For example, some months you may have more money than others, but overall with good management, the goal is to have enough. So, if one year there is more rainwater, then the aquifers get filled and this compensates for those years when there is less water in winter.

Are there restrictions on monoculture farms regarding the amount of water they can use?
We do not determine water allocation based on how and for what it is used. When water is scarce we prioritise: people first, then animals, then agriculture. It proved necessary to impose restrictions of this nature, for example, in 2005. In the case of agriculture, we gave priority to the protection of trees, because not watering trees can damage fruit production for many years.

We try to estimate how much water is needed each year, for example, for a citrus farm and then, based on this estimate, we can control the amount used. Large commercial boreholes have a meter and they pay a charge for the water that they use. For smaller farmers who do not have a borehole meter, we cannot measure how much water is used. For water management purposes, it is easier to deal with one large operation than hundreds of small boreholes. We use new technology to measure the quantity and quality of water used by large companies. This is not the case for traditional farmers, who continue to farm just as their grandfathers did, using chemicals and huge amounts of water.

The most important aspect of life is cultural, of course. Potatoes and the things my grandmother planted were important. Now we have a different economy. The Aqua Parks, the golf courses and the gardens in the tourist areas, all have a place in the economy. The most important consideration at the moment is that we have enough resources. There is now a requirement that new golf courses must recycle the water that they use.

So what is the situation in the Alentejo, for example, where there is a lot of agriculture?
The water situation in the Alentejo is very different to that of the Algarve. The area around the River Sado, in particular, has only a few shallow dams and many reservoirs are almost empty. The Alentejo economy is based on agriculture, and this puts a huge strain on water resources. But there is some resilience because of the large Alqueva dam, which wasn’t there in the past. Over the last ten years, there has been a loss of habitat and there has been some compensation paid to the farmers who lost their land below the dam. Most farmers in the region have more water in the summer now than before the dam was built. Farmers are now able to receive 100 litres of water per second because of the dam. We cannot compare agriculture now to what it was 50 years ago. Portugal is now subject to European political options. We do not have large industries in Portugal. Tourism is the most important economic activity, especially in Lisbon, the Algarve and Porto.

In the last few years, growing under plastic greenhouses has become an industry in its own right. Some places have introduced huge plastic tunnels growing raspberries and blueberries. What has been the impact on water resources?
The greenhouses use less water than traditional agricultural processes.We know some people are suffering and we do not have a solution. Some people are going to court to try and resolve water conflicts. The courts, and even the Supreme Court of Justice, have been ruling that just because you were there first and had a good water supply, it doesn’t not mean you can continue to have water in your watermill or borehole.

And what about climate change?
If temperatures continue to rise and for longer periods, because of climate change, the situation in Portugal could get worse. Our role is to find solutions.

So, what are you doing to raise awareness in schools and communities and among tourists about how water is a limited resource? Are there any measures in place that are making people aware of the need to save water?

Paula Noronha: Yes, there are some projects in progress and we broadcast information about these over the radio. Look at our website and you will see our programmes. Keeping tourists informed is the responsibility of the local councils. In schools, one project is currently engaged in analysing the quality of water for wildlife.

How can people get involved in decision-making and ensuring that their voice is heard?
Paulo Cruz: People can write to Apambiente. But there is very little we can do, as planning depends on a global economic approach, and these kinds of changes are just not taking place in Portugal.

Over the last 40 years, we have benefited from fishing and a boom in tourism. Our role is to measure, monitor and analyse everything, and to work out to be done, based on scientific criteria.

Thank you.

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