natural water reservoir, treesBarragem Arade

Beneath the exhausted dams, the dried-up irrigation channels and the citrus and avocado orchards, rivers and streams flow that form considerable bodies of water stored between the rocks. The Algarve has 17 underground aquifers. “They’re real Alqueva [dams] under our feet,” according to hydrologist José Paulo Monteiro, which will supply the public network when the dams run out. But these strategic reserves are also becoming “critical”.

St. Peter distributes the rain like a madman, without criteria. It’s up to God. In the north and center of the country, where the rains at the end of October and beginning of November had filled six reservoirs, it rained cats and dogs again in December. The Serra Serrada and Vilar-Tabuaço dams on the Douro, the Lagoa Comprida dam on the Mondego, and the Belver, Capinha and Cova de Viriato dams on the Tagus, all of which had had enough water, opened their floodgates to let the excess flow out – while in the Algarve the dripping rain didn’t even wet the region’s six dams, which are still thirsty.

The Algarve’s dams — Bravura, Odelouca, Arade and Funcho, in Barlavento; Odeleite and Beliche, in Sotavento — are at less than a quarter of their capacity, according to reports from the Portuguese Environment Agency (APA). Together, they have no more than 34 cubic hectometers of water, the equivalent of 34 billion liters. It looks like an immense, inexhaustible sea. But it’s a puddle – a small puddle for the needs of the taps. “It’s enough to supply the public network for about eight months,” Professor Nuno Loureiro, a researcher at the University of Faro, told Diário de Notícias (DN).

The municipality of Silves, with 3,000 hectares of irrigated land, provides the land for most of the Algarve’s orange groves. Around 150,000 tons of oranges come from here every year, half of the Algarve’s entire production – and the Algarve, according to the National Statistics Institute, contributes almost 90 percent of the country’s total of 350,000 tons. The orchards need sun and can’t do without it. They don’t lack heat, but water is increasingly scarce.

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João Garcia, president of the irrigators’ association, looks at the green orchards with fear of what may lie ahead. You don’t have to be a witch to guess the doom of drought. The cloudless sky and the smiling sun don’t bode well. There was a time when it rained more in the western Algarve, from Sagres to Albufeira, and less in the eastern Algarve, from Loulé to Vila Real de Santo António. Now, it’s the other way around. At the end of November, there were blessed downpours in the Sotavento and embarrassing drops in the Barlavento. The Odelouca and Arade dams, where the water that irrigates the orchards of Silves and Lagoa comes from, remained low – so low that the Portuguese Environment Agency decided to suspend irrigation. Not a drop comes out of there for agriculture. The priority is to safeguard the public supply.

Each hectare of orange grove, the equivalent of a soccer field, requires between 6,000 and 6,500 cubic meters of water a year — six or 6.5 million liters from January to December. Watering has been so sparing that this year the production of oranges of the spring and summer varieties – Lane Late, Valencia and Dom João – has halved. “There are orchards that have already lost many orange trees. The trees have dried up and died. Others, fed by boreholes, are on a survival regime: they only receive the water they need so that the trees don’t die, although they produce little or nothing, in the hope that it rains and they can recover,” says João Garcia.

The irrigators in Silves still managed to water until the end of November. In the neighboring municipality of Lagos, in the Odiáxere area, water is an old memory. For three years, the beneficiaries of the Bravura Dam – some 1,800 hectares of irrigated land – haven’t had a drop of water flowing through their irrigation channels. The dam’s reservoir looks like the bottom of a bowl and its banks are now arid, stony ravines. The water that is stored down there, so little that it can only be removed with a suction pump, is destined for the public network.

The October rains, the result of the Aline and Bernard depressions, were actually encouraging. They hit hard. But they passed quickly. They left as quickly as they arrived. They left no more than 100,000 cubic meters (100 million liters) of water in the Bravura dam. “It was enough for two weeks of public supply,” says the president of the irrigation association, António Marreiros. Not a drop of this water went to irrigation. The orange orchards have survived their thirst thanks to two boreholes, drilled in the Torre area, on loan from Portimão Câmara.

The landscape around the Bravura irrigation canals is changing. The traditional orange groves are rapidly being replaced by a new permanent crop – avocados. The plantations, watered from boreholes to underground aquifers, stretch from Odiáxere to the municipality of Vila do Bispo. These trees are hated by environmentalists. They point to a mortal sin: they drink a lot of water – water that the Algarve doesn’t have. It’s more about fame than profit.

Macário Correia, whom the country knew as a committed Secretary of State for the Environment, is an agronomist by training and a farmer. The avocado trees don’t keep him awake. “It’s not true that they consume the tons of water they say,” he says. If anything, they drink “10 percent more than a citrus grove”, between 6.6 million and seven million liters per hectare per year. More drop, less drop. The trend is for them to drink less and less water. The University of the Algarve, in collaboration with the Regional Directorate of Agriculture, is carrying out a study to promote more efficient irrigation of irrigated orchards.

But avocado trees have an advantage: they give farmers more income. According to Macário Correia, “the market is paying producers an average of 20 cents a kilo for oranges and around two euros for avocados”. He works with citrus fruits – oranges, tangerines and lemons – and carob. Not a single avocado comes from his family’s land on the outskirts of Tavira. But the land with this fruit is growing in the Algarve. They cover 2,600 hectares, according to figures from the Regional Directorate of Agriculture, and already account for eight percent of the region’s entire agricultural area. The business seems to be paying off. A study commissioned by the Algarve Business Union shows that the current avocado plantations, when they reach their peak of production, will generate 40 million euros for the region.

The Algarve’s Gross Domestic Product, according to data from the Regional Coordination and Development Commission, is around 10 billion euros. The biggest contribution comes from tourism. Agriculture is worth around nine percent of the wealth: around 900 million euros. It occupies around 32,500 hectares, much of it with citrus fruits, apples, pears, avocados – orchards that demand water. The dams are exhausted. Even the Sotavento irrigation schemes, 8,000 hectares of which are served by the Odeleite and Beliche dams, ran out of water at the beginning of December. “There’s no water to start next year’s campaign,” laments Macário Correia, president of the irrigators’ association.

In the absence of surface water, farmers are resorting to underground water. There are 6,765 licensed water intakes throughout the Algarve, including boreholes, wells and norias, according to the National Water Resources Information System. But nobody knows how many are illegal boreholes. José Paulo Monteiro, a hydrologist and professor at the Center for Water Sciences and Technologies at the University of Faro, estimates that “there are between 20,000 and 25,000 boreholes in the Algarve, a region with an area of 5,400 km2”.

Nuno Loureiro, a researcher at the University of Faro, demands “planning and supervision” to prevent “everyone doing what they want with a scarce resource that belongs to everyone”. It won’t be difficult to monitor and put the boreholes in order. Satellite images, which observe everything, can help.

Nuno Loureiro knows the Algarve from space like few others. He is working on the construction of a modern map that should be finished next February. We’ll then see down to the last millimeter what the true extent of irrigation in the Algarve is. Satellites have shown him “an increase” in irrigated areas over time: “The images from the 1980s show how small the citrus grove in the Silves area is and how modest the whole area to the north and south of the National Road 125 is, between Tavira and Vila Real de Santo António. If you look at recent images, from 2018, 2020, 2022, you can see that it’s growing more and more and being watered more and more.” The green is not deceiving. You can see if vegetation is being watered – and this information, cross-referenced with possible water sources, is enough to detect illegal boreholes.

This method of satellite mapping, according to Nuno Loureiro, “makes it possible to monitor water use, but it is not being used by political and technical decision-makers, and it needs to start being used”. Even if this winter is a little more generous with the rain, that “may ease the pain, but it’s no remedy” for the problem the region faces – and the problem, the scientist sums up, is acute: “The Algarve consumes more water than it has available.”

Beneath our feet, under the exhausted dams and dry irrigation channels, run rivers and streams that form considerable bodies of water stored between the rocks. The Algarve has 17 aquifers underground – “they’re real Alqueva dams”, hydrologist José Paulo Monteiro told DN. But these strategic reserves “are becoming critical” because the drought and lack of rainfall is preventing them from being recharged. The most important — delimited by Querença, in the municipality of Loulé, Faro and Silves — has already experienced a “recharge capacity of around three million cubic meters per year”. It was time. The water level is dropping so much that salt water from the sea has already started to seep in. The others are no better. The one located deep in the earth between Almádena and Odiáxere is saved. Nature has trapped it between rocks and cut it off from the coast.

The Algarve consumes an average of 237 cubic hectometers of water per year, the equivalent of 237 billion liters. More than half, almost 129 hectometers, comes from aquifers – water that is used for everything: public supply, orchard and golf course rules, filling swimming pools… “These reserves are going into the red,” warns Professor Nuno Loureiro.

Due to the drought, the Portuguese Environment Agency is not authorizing new abstractions from aquifers that are in a critical situation. The law establishes criteria for licensing a borehole. One of them is to set a maximum amount of water that can be extracted. “In the case of irrigation, for example, the volume has to do with the area of the orchard or the area of the golf course,” says José Paulo Monteiro. But that’s all very nice on paper. “There’s no way of controlling what each person takes out,” he says. There is also another problem that makes it difficult to control the abstraction of water from aquifers. “In Portugal, groundwater is private. The owner of the land owns the water,” says the University of the Algarve researcher.

The ownership of underground water, whether it is public or private, worries António Pina, mayor of Olhão and president of the Intermunicipal Community of the Algarve. “Water belongs to everyone. It doesn’t make sense for it to be private. The legal regime needs to be clarified. In view of the difficulties we’re going to face, with the worsening scarcity, the law must be changed urgently to safeguard an asset that belongs to everyone.”

The regulations require large consumers of groundwater to have meters on their boreholes. “Most of them don’t and I don’t think there’s any supervision,” says António Pina. The price of water taken from aquifers is “derisory”, according to a source at the Portuguese Environment Agency who prefers not to be identified. The fee is set when the borehole license is issued and depends on the volume of water authorized. In the case of golf, for example, the price for an 18-hole course is no more than 1500 euros per year.

Tourism, the locomotive of the Algarve’s economy, wants to reuse wastewater to water golf courses and gardens. But what is being done, according to António Pina, is little more than a “drop in the volume of treated effluent that could be reused”. The president of the Algarve Regional Coordination and Development Commission, José Apolinário, has faith in the ability of hotel groups to “speed up the process” of using water from treatment plants: the “goal is to reach the end of this year with at least 16 percent of effluent reused,” he told Diário de Notícias.

The Resilience and Recovery Plan (PRR), the famous European bazooka, has 240 million euros for investment in works that will enable the Algarve to cope with water scarcity. In Professor Nuno Loureiro’s opinion, the plans are too late.

The Algarve is not experiencing a drought. It’s much worse than that. The researcher, from looking at the rainfall records, already knows by heart the amount of rain that has fallen in the region over the last 20 years: “Drought is a cyclical episode, with a beginning and an end that can easily be delimited in time, in which there is a decrease in precipitation followed by an increase in precipitation. What we have is a curve that is decreasing and never reverses.” The ever-decreasing curve indicates a frightening path. “We’ve seen a drop in rainfall and water reserves for two decades now and, rather than occasional episodes of drought, the Algarve is experiencing years of low rainfall and is already desertifying,” says Professor Nuno Loureiro.

If desalination turns out like the airport story, the Algarve will die of thirst. Unless St. Peter sends a downpour that fills dams and recharges aquifers. Otherwise, we’ll have to go to the underground reserves, the “Alquevas under our feet”, to keep the water from running out of the taps.

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