Home News Drought: Irrigation in the Algarve divides environmentalists

Drought: Irrigation in the Algarve divides environmentalists

Published on 15/02/2022

The lack of rain in the Algarve is a huge problem for agriculture in the region and is already affecting traditional rainfed crops, such as almonds or carob, the regional director of Agriculture and Fisheries has warned.

img decoding=”async” loading=”lazy” src=”http://algarvedailynews.com/images/news2/20151.jpg” alt=”DROUGHT: IRRIGATION IN THE ALGARVE DIVIDES ENVIRONMENTALISTS” width=”160″ height=”107″ style=”margin-right: 10px; margin-bottom: 5px; float: left;” />The lack of rain in the Algarve is a huge problem for agriculture in the region and is already affecting traditional rainfed crops, such as almonds or carob, the regional director of Agriculture and Fisheries has warned.

“What we are also observing is that there are more and more difficulties on the part of rainfed crops, due to this decrease in annual precipitation volumes and what the soil is able to retain”, said Pedro Monteiro.

The regional director of Agriculture indicated that “traditional crops, which have always been grown in a non-irrigated way, which includes fruit trees such as carob, almond, fig and olive trees”, are already being affected by the lack of soil moisture, with the municipalities of Olhão, Faro, São Brás de Alportel and Loulé being the most affected.

These crops, like “natural pastures and some cereals” of barley or wheat, “behave exactly the same as that of natural vegetation” and end up “living only on what naturally falls in the form of precipitation and is stored in the soil”, unlike irrigated crops.

“If we go to the barrocal today (the area between the mountains and the sea), namely in this area north of Faro and in these municipalities in the central Algarve, we are also starting to see some complicated situations in these more rustic species”. Pedro Monteiro also explained that the lack of rain and high temperatures has caused an “early flowering of the almond tree”, creating “some problems in terms of the carob tree”, which will have consequences later on in production.

“And everything results from this combination of these climatic parameters that are complicated, because we have abnormally high temperatures during the day, lower temperatures at night, low soil moisture and this leads to tissue dissection and plants are more susceptible, for example, to be scorched by the frost”, he explained.

In addition to rainfed crops, the lack of rain is also affecting irrigation, the other large group of crops in the Algarve which should have been subsisting until March only on rainwater, have had to be irrigated because of the lack of water and moisture in the soil.

“Usually, the irrigation campaign in the Algarve, the earliest it starts is around March. In the wettest years, we were able to postpone the start of irrigation until May. And today, in some areas, we are already watering,” he said.

Due to the drought in mainland Portugal, on February 1st, the Government decreed limits to energy production in several dams: Alto Lindoso/Touvedo, Vilar de Tabuaço, Alto Rabagão, Cabril and Castelo de Bode. The water from the Bravura dam, in the western Algarve, can no longer be used for irrigation.

The lack of water is causing concern across the agricultural sector in the Algarve, but while environmentalists demand limitations on irrigation, especially for avocados, authorities and producers are calling for the diversification of reserves and greater efficiency in consumption.
Cláudia Sil, from the Sustainable Water Platform (PAS), considers that the growing focus on avocado crops is “harmful” for the Algarve water reserves and warned that this “is not an indigenous species” and represents “a culture that needs water permanently”.
“The avocado tree is not autochthonous, it is a species that evolved adapting to a tropical climate, one of the characteristics of a tropical climate is that it has a lot of water, therefore, it is a crop that needs water permanently. At this moment, it is already possible to see yellowed avocado crops in the Algarve, so the avocado tree is suffering from a lack of water,” she said.
In Ms Sils opinion, it is necessary to “analyse the cultivation methods” of these irrigated plantations, because “the more plants per hectare” there are “the more resources and the more water” there is used, while the profit remains only for the producers.
“Irrigated agriculture is totally discouraged in the region, orchards with great irrigation needs should not be developed, what we advocate are alternative crops, with other cultivation methods, such as refishing the rainfed crop”, she said.
The regional director of Agriculture and Fisheries, Pedro Monteiro, acknowledged that the region is in a “complicated situation”, with “a substantial part of the Algarve already in extreme drought”, but underlined that “agriculture is increasingly dependent on water, as like other economic activities”, and that the lack of water is also felt in rainfed fruit trees, such as almonds, carob or figs.
“This poses a huge challenge for agriculture, we have to be more efficient in the application of water to the plot, to the plant, more efficient also in the distribution of water, namely, in hydro-agricultural uses”, he said, quantifying the 2,050 hectares of land which is currently avocado orchards in the region, with an annual production of 15,000 tons.
On the producer side, there is an “increasing focus on technology that allows for intelligent water monitoring” to “measure the amount of moisture that exists in real time in the soil” and “apply only the amount of water strictly necessary to the soil”. 
Pedro Monteiro set the annual water consumption of avocado crops at between 5,700 and 7,200 cubic metres per hectare, while orange trees use between 6,000 and 6,500 cubic metres, and stated that “the big difference is that the avocado tree is much more sensitive to situations of water stress” than citrus.
João Bento Inácio, from the JBI group, which has 300 hectares of avocados in the eastern Algarve and has an annual turnover of close to 10 million euros, told Lusa news agency that “there are still no restrictions regarding the use of water” in the plantations, but admitted that the current situation “worries the sector a lot”.
“We have to create conditions to reduce this risk of dependence only on rain, we also have to invest on the efficiency side, to use water more efficiently in all sectors and in public consumption in the Algarve, throughout the region, so this has to involve everyone”, he proposed.
For the producer, as for the regional director of Agriculture, the construction of dams in streams is another possible solution.
João Bento Inácio considered that “all sectors” need to be involved so that the sector is more efficient and uses water better, as well as to understand “how to increase the supply of water”.
This producer considered that, for this to happen, “investment is necessary” in new reserves, such as the creation of a new dam on the Foupana stream, to complement the reserves that already exist in the Beliche and Odeleite dams, which currently use 40% of capacity.  
“Since this dam has a capacity equal to the two dams I mentioned earlier, it means that if it were built right now we would have double the water reserves we have”, he explained.
João Bento Inácio also rejected the idea that avocados use more water than citrus, stating that whoever says that “speaks without having scientific knowledge and knowledge of the facts”, because “avocados require the same as citrus and other trees of fruit”, as shown by the numbers of metres of irrigation installed by associations on farms.