Drought grips Por­tu­gal

Coun­try try­ing to bal­ance con­flict­ing de­mands as reser­voirs dry up

The Barrie Examiner - - LIFE - BARRY HAT­TON

SANTA SU­SANA, Por­tu­gal — Por­tu­gal’s Pego do Al­tar reser­voir looks like a dis­used quarry now, its bare, ex­posed slopes ris­ing up steeply on each side and shim­mer­ing in the sun as it holds barely 11 per cent of the wa­ter it was de­signed for.

The huge lake where peo­ple used to swim, boat and fish has shrunk to a sliver of wa­ter, sur­rounded by baked, cracked earth and a hand­ful of white fish car­casses.

It is a des­o­late and dis­turb­ing sight — and one that has be­come in­creas­ingly com­mon in south­ern Por­tu­gal.

While parts of the U.S. and the Caribbean are drown­ing in wa­ter amid fe­ro­cious hur­ri­canes, a drought is tight­en­ing its grip on wide ar­eas of Por­tu­gal.

More than 80 per cent of the coun­try is of­fi­cially clas­si­fied as en­dur­ing “se­vere” or “ex­treme” drought — con­di­tions among the coun­try’s worst in more than 20 years.

Wa­ter has spo­rad­i­cally been scarce in this part of south­ern Europe for cen­turies. But Por­tuguese En­vi­ron­ment Sec­re­tary Car­los Mar­tins says that “it has got­ten worse with cli­mate change.”

The pro­longed dry spell is most acute in the Alen­tejo re­gion, south and east of Lis­bon, the cap­i­tal. Here, the es­sen­tial river is the Sado, Por­tu­gal’s sev­enth-largest. As its flow has dwin­dled, so the reser­voirs in the river basin, such as Pego do Al­tar, are dry­ing up. In some places now, the Sado is a thin, knee-deep flow.

The re­ced­ing wa­ter at Pego do Al­tar has ex­posed a small, 18th­cen­tury stone bridge which was last seen in 1999. Lo­cals have been com­ing to take pho­tos of them­selves next to it.

The dead fish in Pego do Al­tar’s dried mud are the ca­nary in the mine for au­thor­i­ties. Large num­bers of fish dy­ing due to depleted oxy­gen lev­els would con­tam­i­nate the area’s public drink­ing wa­ter, so a pro­gram to scoop out the doomed fish from four Sado basin reser­voirs is now un­der­way. It’s a race against the clock.

“It’s a pre­ven­tive mea­sure,” says Car­los Silva, a spokesman for EDIA, a state com­pany that helps man­age the Alen­tejo’s wa­ter sup­ply. “It would be a catas­tro­phe if the fish started dy­ing off ” in large quan­ti­ties.

As grey herons watch from the bank and birds of prey glide silently by, fish­er­men To­maz Silva, 25, and Miguel Farias, 29, nudge their boat to­ward sil­ver nets buoyed by empty plas­tic wa­ter bot­tles that they had strung across the reser­voir the pre­vi­ous day. Chat­ting in a strong Alen­tejo ac­cent, they throw the fish into a box where they flap around. Some weigh 5 or 6 kg and are as long as an adult’s arm.

Many, how­ever, are skinny due to the fierce com­pe­ti­tion for di­min­ish­ing food.

With the wa­ter level so low, it’s a bit like shoot­ing fish in a bar­rel.

Silva and Farias catch on av­er­age between 1 and 1.5 tonnes a day. Their haul is taken away to be turned into fish­meal. Over about six weeks, of­fi­cials ex­pect to har­vest more than 100 tonnes from the four Sado reser­voirs.

Mar­tins said a gov­ern­ment drought mon­i­tor­ing com­mit­tee is work­ing to rec­on­cile the con­flict­ing de­mands placed on the re­gion’s scarce wa­ter re­sources. Mak­ing sure there’s enough wa­ter for drink­ing faucets is the top pri­or­ity, he says.

That could end up bring­ing a ban on the ir­ri­ga­tion of farm­land, which uses up 80 per cent of the re­gion’s avail­able wa­ter.

Farm­ers are fret­ting over their parched pas­ture land and wilt­ing ce­real crops. Cat­tle breed­ers are de­mand­ing drink­ing wa­ter for their live­stock. And en­ergy com­pa­nies want wa­ter to flow to keep up their hy­dro­elec­tric pro­duc­tion at dams.

The Alen­tejo is a fa­mously pretty part of Por­tu­gal, with groves of olive trees, stone pines and cork oaks — na­tive va­ri­eties re­silient enough to sur­vive its weather ex­tremes. But it’s also one of the Euro­pean Union’s poor­est re­gions — sparsely pop­u­lated, cov­er­ing 34 per cent of the coun­try but con­tain­ing only 7 per cent of its pop­u­la­tion. Al­most half of its res­i­dents are more than 65 years old.

Many peo­ple here make a liv­ing from farm­ing, and cut­ting off ir­ri­ga­tion would sound the death knell for their jobs.

At Tor­rao, a 15th-cen­tury hill­top vil­lage with a panoramic view of the Sado basin’s Vale do Gaio reser­voir, lo­cals live with daily ev­i­dence of the drought.

An­to­nio Sardinha, an 82-yearold sub­sis­tence farmer with thick fingers and a sun-kissed com­plex­ion, says he has never seen the reser­voir so low. Of­fi­cial records say it’s at 18 per cent of ca­pac­ity.

The wa­ter in his well is so shal­low, he says, that his bucket hits the bot­tom.

“Wa­ter is the key to ev­ery­thing,” Sardinha said. “You need wa­ter to cre­ate ev­ery­thing else.”


Baked, cracked earth re­places what was un­til re­cent times the huge lake of the Pego do Al­tar reser­voir near the vil­lage of Santa Su­sana in south­ern Por­tu­gal. A drought is tight­en­ing its grip on wide ar­eas of Por­tu­gal, with more than 80 per cent of the coun­try of­fi­cially clas­si­fied as en­dur­ing “se­vere” or “ex­treme” drought con­di­tions.

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