Triple A for Algarve, Water and Agriculture

Agriculture/primary sector is not only fundamental for the Algarve to achieve the much-desired diversification of its economic base, but it is also essential for promoting greater sustainability, balance and intra-regional cohesion

The recent trajectory of Algarve agriculture has been entirely worthy of note. In the space of a decade, the gross value added (GVA) generated practically doubled and represents more than 9% of the national sectoral GVA, despite being realized on only 2,5% of the utilized agricultural area (SAU) in Portugal.

Gross agricultural product increased by 5,4% in volume and 7,4% in value per year during this period and the sector's income achieved the best economic performance among the various NUTII, with average growth rates of 9,4%/year .

According to data made available by INE in the “Regional Agricultural Economic Accounts”, the productivity of agricultural holdings located in the Algarve region grew 5,4% in the last decade, reinforcing their economic competitiveness, largely based on gains in land productivity and intermediate factors and efficiency in the use of factors (such as water), the highest observed at national level.

Working from place to place every day, women and men in the primary sector continue to face some misunderstanding/lack of knowledge on the part of society, which has become accustomed to taking for granted having food on the table with safety/quality standards and at affordable prices, forgetting that, to this end, someone has to take care of living beings, plants and animals, on working days, weekends and holidays, in the fields/greenhouses/orchards, whose activity cannot be temporarily suspended when any market disruption occurs, being still subjected to climate risks and growing health threats, in a production space [EU] that is increasingly demanding in terms of environment and food safety, which leads to increased challenges.

At the same time, they have to compete in a globalized market (as food is increasingly also a geopolitical weapon, thus reviving the discussion about critical thresholds of food sovereignty and self-sufficiency), in which we export, but also import a lot from geographies governed by regulatory frameworks. quite different, with demanding standards, including in terms of social and labor rights, and inherent production costs, which are also very different.

It's work... and with tangible results when we realize the relevant contribution of our oranges (and their PGI), raspberries and other fruits, flowers and ornamental plants, to the record 2.300 million euros of national exports in 2023.

Or we witness the remarkable journey of Algarve wines, not only in quantity and quality, but also in the appreciation and territorial notoriety provided by wine tourism, or in the differentiation increasingly recognized in the global carob gum markets.

Above all, a path made of work: of qualification and professionalization on the part of a sector that is increasingly present in major international trade events, such as the recently held Fruit Logistica in Berlin.

If we add to this: the crucial role of some types and modes of agriculture, livestock and forestry, along with the transformation of their products, in combating depopulation and stopping desertification processes in heavily weakened territories, for the preservation of agricultural forest ecosystems and traditional landscapes, fire prevention, regularization of hydrological cycles, carbon sequestration and even contributing to enriching the tourist offer through differentiation via endogenous resources or towards the objectives of decarbonizing the footprint associated with the food system through shortening circuits of marketing, we are aware that agriculture/primary sector is not only fundamental for the Algarve region to achieve the much-desired diversification of its economic base, but also for the promotion of greater sustainability, balance and intra-regional cohesion.

In regions like the Algarve, already historically prone to periods of drought, the impact of climate change has greatly intensified this problem: from meteorological drought, we have evolved into a phenomenon of a hydrological nature, which has also stopped being episodic/cyclical to assume a markedly structural dimension.

It is not only consensual, but also statistically based, that: i) The Algarve is going through a drought that is more severe than that of 2005; ii) It faces a situation of water scarcity, with historically lower levels of reserves in reservoirs, despite the fact that, in 2009, the largest dam in the Algarve (Odelouca) was inaugurated, a behavior also mimicked in groundwater; and iii) Of the ten driest years ever, six were recorded after 2000 and in the last 20 years there has been a 25% reduction in the average accumulated annual precipitation.

Even if we did not take into account that 1 hectare of irrigated land can produce six times more than 1 hectare of rainfed land, the hydrological reality described above becomes increasingly difficult. or even make it impossible. the practice of full rainfed farming, due to the more prolonged and frequent occurrence of periods in which soil moisture levels fall below the Permanent Wilting Coefficient, making it impossible for the plants' roots to extract water from the soil.

Even new installations with traditional varieties of carob or almond trees, just to mention these species that are particularly resilient to water stress, today are mostly done so through the assisted rainfed method, in which water is artificially made available to the plant, at least in the initial stages. .

Algarve agriculture has, as mentioned above, improved its economic performance without this having come at the expense of an unbridled expansion of irrigation.

In fact, data from the agricultural census show that, from 1999 to 2019, the irrigated surface in the Algarve reduced by 4,4%, from 22.123 to 21.145 hectares.

Since time immemorial, agricultural production in the Algarve has lived with a demanding climate, with periodic droughts, forcing human ingenuity to permanent adaptation strategies that enhance the use/supply and careful management of water to better face these periods of scarcity.

Today, it is common practice on Algarve farms to equip localized irrigation and sensorization equipment, a behavior corroborated by INE data, according to which the regional effort to invest in technology (namely in precision irrigation), experienced a variation of +3,5 .XNUMX%/year at the level of the amount per hectare of cultivated agricultural area.

This notable effort to improve water use efficiency was not limited to agricultural holdings alone, but also to public collective irrigation.

Thus: the hydro-agricultural development (AH) of Sotavento, with an area of ​​around 8.000 hectares and with 1,4 M€ of investments planned/underway under the PRR – PREH Algarve to reinforce the reduction of water losses, projects a 98% efficiency; in AH Silves, Lagoa and Portimão, covering an area of ​​2.400 hectares, 17,5 M€ of public funds from the National Irrigation Plan have been invested to date in the modernization works of the Silves and Lagoa irrigation blocks, with which it was possible to achieve a reduction in water losses of 3,6 million m3/year.

With the extension of pressurization also to the Portimão Block, which benefits from an additional €7 M in funds financed by PDR2020, additional savings of +1 hm3 are expected in the 400 hectares covered by this rehabilitation.

In these two hydro-agricultural developments, tiered tariff systems have already been implemented to discourage/penalize excessive consumption, and the operationalization of warnings/recommendations for irrigation allocations is underway.

Reasons that explain the positive performance of the Algarve region in terms of water use in agriculture: in 2019, according to data included in the Algarve Regional Water Efficiency Plan (PREH Algarve), it was 56,8% of the regional total, representing a reduction of more than half compared to consumption recorded in 2002 and comparing very favorably with 75% nationally and in European countries in the Mediterranean basin with climates similar to ours.

Having arrived here, it is factual that today:

– The Algarve region faces a situation of at least hydrological alert, in which the predictable supply of water is no longer sufficient to satisfy the projected demand for it, other things being equal.

Therefore, it is essential to define contingency plans that improve efficiency and allow water availability to be extended as much as possible over time.

The measures adopted/to be adopted must be transversal to the various sectors and users, defend and prioritize existing needs to the detriment of new ones that bring pressure, proportional and balanced so that sacrifices do not make some unfeasible, and must be periodically evaluated and calibrated in light of developments the level of water resources.

At the same time, they must be supported by an action program, such as the one recently presented by CCDR Algarve IP in consultation with regional and national representatives of the agricultural sector, which provides support for agricultural companies and AH management entities and investment incentives, namely, in underground capture systems resilience in areas where the condition of the resource allows it (notice already open until February 28th within the scope of PDR2020), implementation of small ponds and reservoirs, exploration of new sources (portable desalination plants, reuse of treated wastewater – ApR, use of rainwater intercepted by greenhouses for irrigation or recharging aquifers, etc.), as well as to improve efficiency and intelligent water management in private and public irrigation.

– Within the scope of the PRR, a specific envelope was made available for the implementation of PREH Algarve, totaling to date around 240 M€, whose execution, critical and priority, must be completed by 2026 and which, among measures on the demand side (vg more efficiency/better governance) and supply (new origins / ApR and desalination, water intake in Pomarão), estimates a input positive of approx. 70 million m3 of water.

In this context, emphasis should also be placed on the AH Alvor modernization project, whose supply of water for irrigation from the Bravura dam will continue for the 3rd year, which has been suspended due to the reduced level of storage, and for which an estimated cost of €14,5 million contract to pressurize the entire primary distribution network (reducing losses to the technical minimum) and transforming it into the first national public irrigation system with 3 distinct water sources: surface (dam), collective boreholes and distribution of ApR by separative networks.

– Even so, there is a strong probability, given the expected worsening of the consequences of climate change, that, despite the above, this Region will continue to be excessively exposed to the increasing unpredictability of precipitation.

Recovering the title of this article, for the Algarve to reach the AAA level (in parallel with the rating quality of sovereign credit), synonymous with lower risk for those who live and invest here or for those who want to do so in the future, we must now, proactively, anticipate other structuring investments aimed at strengthening water security/resilience, always subordinated to a careful cost-benefit analysis and balancing environmental constraints, among which I highlight: strengthening the supply capacity with the construction of new dams, with Foupana already having financing of €0,5 million per part of PDR2020, attributed to the Association of Beneficiaries of the Sotavento do Algarve Irrigation Plan for the preparation of the respective preliminary studies; the Alqueva-Odeleite interconnections, to Sotavento, and Santa Clara–Bravura/Odelouca, to Barlavento, in the latter case resorting, if necessary, to reinforcement at the source via desalination.


Author Pedro Valadas Monteiro, engineer and PhD, is vice president of CCDR Algarve IP


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