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Santa Clara demonstration: Where were the politicians?

SANTA CLARA DEMONSTRATION: WHERE WERE THE POLITICIANS?There was no police presence either needed or visible at the passionate but well-behaved demonstration that took place yesterday morning, 18th July 2021, on the dam wall of the Santa Clara Barragem in the Lower Alentejo.

This beautiful lake is situated in one of the lowest population-density areas in Europe, so the turn-out of more than 500 concerned citizens, residents and visitors, Portuguese and foreign, young, old and in between, was impressive.

They came to protest against the vast quantities of water being pumped out of Santa Clara lake – 1,000 lts of water a second, 24/7.

The large numbers present show the depth of feeling aroused by the perceived rape of the surrounding countryside and its people at the hands of an intensive agricultural industry that has exploded in the Natural Park of the Costa Vicentina on the west coast over the last fifteen years.

The allocation of the precious resource that is the water in Santa Clara Barragem, (one of the largest man-made lakes in Europe by volume), is the responsibility of the Associação Beneficiarios de Mira, (or ABMira for short).

They sell over 90% to the intensive agricultural businesses while allocating the local population just 6%, (3% is sent to clean a mine to the east).

However, of the water that is extracted from the lake a full 40% is wasted either through leaks in the canals, (due to a lack of maintenance), or is left to run unused into the sea, (which can only be attributable to a lack of management).

As climate change starts to bite and the pendulum of the weather swings at an increasing pace, bringing devastating floods to some areas and heat bubbles to others, the south western corner of the Iberian Peninsula is finding that droughts are longer, water is scarcer, and, when the rain does come, it is either more feeble or a sudden fierce onslaught with rapid run-off – but there have been precious few fierce onslaughts over the last ten years.

The combination of less rainfall and excessive abstraction means  that the lake is falling by 2 cms every day and is at its lowest level since it was inaugurated over 50 years ago – well, it’s not actually at its lowest level, as that was last year, when it was a couple of centimetres lower in July, but, following what was termed “um inverno chuvoso”, a “wet winter”, this is of scant concern save to further highlight the disaster unfolding before one’s eyes.

This intensive agricultural industry, for the most part foreign-owned and growing berries for export to northern Europe, is draining the only water resource of the area at an alarmingly expanding rate and there are plans afoot with permission already granted to further expand the hectarage of greenhouses – yes, it’s predominantly under plastic and heavily reliant upon agro-chemicals with attendant run-off pollution.

Moreover, being under plastic means that there is irrigation water needed even during the winter when one should see the lake being filled.

Among the residents of the area there is apprehension for the future as they watch their only water resource being drained before their eyes, there is sadness at the levelling and destruction of habitats in the Natural Park, (to protect which Portugal received EU funds), consternation at the government handouts and tax-cuts offered to the large agricultural companies and anger that these companies seem to be better represented in Government circles than the local population.

Surprisingly, in an election year, local politicians were markedly absent, and those that attended declined to speak publicly to the assembled people.

Unsurprisingly, there were no representatives of ABMira to put their case.

Perhaps both should have been here today – if only to witness the passion that this issue is arousing.

It is late in the day to start taking such a problem seriously, and there are no short-cuts to the solution, and I worry that, should a solution not be forthcoming, there is every reason to believe that demonstrations in the future will have a police presence that will be both visible and needed.

As one of the placards said in bold letters, “Mudaremos a nossa mentalidade”, “We have to start thinking differently”.

Written by Frank McClintock