Farmers Are Facing the Brunt of Portugal’s Worsening Drought

Experts warn that the absence of significant rainfalls in the coming months will degrade water quality and strain irrigation-dependent crops, including some olive groves.
Algarve, Portugal
By Paolo DeAndreis
Feb. 7, 2022 12:47 UTC

Portugal is fac­ing one of the worst droughts of the last 20 years. Livestock and farm­ing have been severely impacted.

Farmers say that the pro­longed absence of sig­nif­i­cant rain­fall through­out the coun­try is tak­ing a toll on soil mois­ture and will likely affect a range of crops.

The drought prob­lem is not lim­ited to the rural world and farm­ers. Drought will affect us all. The short­ages begin in agri­cul­ture, but there will be a day when they reach our taps in our homes.- Eduardo Oliveira e Sousa, pres­i­dent, Portuguese Confederation of Farmers

Experts warn that dimin­ished water lev­els in the coun­try’s reser­voirs will decrease water avail­abil­ity and lower water qual­ity. Dryness and higher-than-usual tem­per­a­tures also are exac­er­bat­ing wild­fires, which are tra­di­tion­ally very rare dur­ing win­ter.

The sce­nario is not going to change soon,” Rui Cortes, a pro­fes­sor of agro-envi­ron­ment and biol­ogy research at the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro, told Olive Oil Times.

See Also:Up to 27 Million in Spain Face Water Shortages by 2050, Minister Warns

In a bul­letin, the Portuguese Institute of Sea and Atmosphere (IPMA) con­firmed that the sit­u­a­tion might worsen in February and affect more areas of the coun­try.

Researchers esti­mate that 54 per­cent of Portugal is already endur­ing a mod­er­ate drought, 34 per­cent a severe drought and the remain­der is expe­ri­enc­ing an extreme drought.

We were used to see­ing much more rain­fall in the north­ern area of the coun­try, at least five or six times what we are see­ing now,” Cortes said. It is not yet as bad as in 1996 or 2005, but it is poised to get worse.”

It could eas­ily become the dri­est year on record,” he added. In these last three months, rain­fall was equal to 17 per­cent of the aver­age. At the moment, there is no imme­di­ate prob­lems with the water sup­ply for the urban pop­u­la­tion. The whole coun­try, not only the south, is suf­fer­ing from the lack of water.”

Agricultural lands depen­dent upon irri­ga­tion are among the most affected sec­tors in the coun­try, includ­ing Portugal’s rapidly expand­ing high den­sity and super-high-den­sity olive groves.

Portuguese farm­ers and insti­tu­tions have spent years invest­ing in the devel­op­ment of the olive oil sec­tor in terms of pro­duc­tion, tech­nol­ogy and sur­face area.

It is a strik­ing sit­u­a­tion if we think of olive oil,” Cortes said. We are hav­ing a very pro­duc­tive sea­son, there are so many olives that some Portuguese pro­duc­ers turn to Spain to process their olives. In this sce­nario, water scarcity will prob­a­bly impact the next sea­son.”

In the south, where water scarcity has affected irri­ga­tion-depen­dent farm­ers the most, experts warn that crops such as almonds, vine­yards and olives will all be affected by reduced water avail­abil­ity. The water lev­els of the major reser­voirs of the region are drop­ping quickly.

The gov­ern­ment is now act­ing to reduce the pres­ence of fish bio­mass in those waters because as the lev­els go down, the result­ing excess of fish will affect water qual­ity,” Cortes said.

According to a report pub­lished by Correio da Manha, dam lev­els from north to south are strik­ingly low, down 50 per­cent or more of their over­all capac­ity.

An assess­ment by the APA agency, which mon­i­tors the coun­try’s water resources, shows that 14 do not reach 40 per­cent of their nor­mal oper­at­ing lev­els. The sur­vey of under­ground water pres­ence has also shown lower-than-usual lev­els.

Rogério Ferreira, the head of the General Direction of Agriculture and Rural Development (DGADR), told Lusa news agency that the sit­u­a­tion is being closely mon­i­tored.


Contingency plans also are being deployed for the most affected loca­tions, such as south­east­ern Alentejo, a highly rel­e­vant farm­ing area in the south, and the Algarve, the south­ern-most region of the coun­try.

According to the DGADR, the goal of the cur­rent oper­a­tions is to pro­vide farm­ers with water. At the same time, plans are being dis­cussed to mit­i­gate the effects of the drought and invest in the par­tial re-use of waste­water for farm­ing needs.

To cope with the sit­u­a­tion, rel­e­vant vol­umes of water are being diverted from the biggest reser­voirs to the smaller ones, which also raises the costs for farm­ers,” Cortes said.

In a note, the Confederation of Farmers (CAP) described the sit­u­a­tion as extreme” and called for gov­ern­ment inter­ven­tion.

All win­ter activ­ity is com­pro­mised and evolv­ing in a sit­u­a­tion of extreme grav­ity con­cern­ing live­stock and autumn and win­ter crops,” Eduardo Oliveira e Sousa, CAP pres­i­dent, told Lusa news agency.

CAP warned the hot win­ter has caused many plants to pre­ma­turely enter the expres­sive pho­to­syn­thetic activ­ity” phase, which is unusual for the sea­son. In this growth phase, plants and trees look for mois­ture, of which there may not be enough.

The sce­nario is very wor­ry­ing,” Oliveira e Sousa said. I am sur­prised that there was no offi­cial mes­sage directed at the pub­lic not to waste water in any way. The drought prob­lem is not lim­ited to the rural world and farm­ers. Drought will affect us all. The short­ages begin in agri­cul­ture, but there will be a day when they reach our taps in our homes.”

Farmers now hope spring rains, which, in the case of the dor­mant plants such as the fruit trees, could bring some relief. However, if rain does not come, the con­se­quences of the drought will impact all crops and prod­uct prices.

Current plans might not be enough to mit­i­gate the sit­u­a­tion, warned experts. Cortes said many cur­rent gov­ern­ment projects aim at expand­ing irri­ga­tion-depen­dent agri­cul­ture, includ­ing olive groves, vine­yards and almonds.

Those projects are already in an advanced devel­op­ment phase. They are mostly located in the coun­try’s cen­tral basin and include the build­ing of 15 small-scale dams to increase the irri­ga­tion poten­tial,” he said.

Those crops are highly demand­ing in terms of water,” Cortes added. In the cur­rent sce­nario, we are work­ing on expand­ing irri­ga­tion-depen­dent crops. So the water re-use plans might only have resid­ual effects.”

When we have rain­fall, it increas­ingly con­cen­trates in short peri­ods. As a result, the con­se­quences may be inun­da­tions and loss of soil, a rel­e­vant con­trib­u­tor to ero­sion,” he con­cluded. In the last 20 years, we did not have a sin­gle wet year.”


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