Drought prompts Portugal to order hydropower dams to limit water use

"The situation of drought is worrying," he said. "If the forecast becomes gloomier, we will have to go beyond these measures." EPA-EFE/NUNO VEIGA [EPA-EFE/NUNO VEIGA]

Facing a worrying winter drought, Portugal’s government on Tuesday (2 February) ordered some of the country’s hydropower dams to temporarily limit water use for electricity production and irrigation, prioritising human consumption instead.

The Portuguese Institute of Meteorology (IPMA) said the drought, which started in November 2021, has worsened, with 54% of the country now in moderate drought, 34% in severe drought and 11% in extreme drought.

There are around 60 Portuguese hydropower dams, which produce 30% of electricity consumed in the country each year, according to the Portuguese Association of Renewable Energies.

For now, just five dams in central Portugal must halt their electricity production almost completely, and one dam in the southern Algarve region, one of the areas most affected by drought, must stop using water for irrigation.

Environment Minister Joao Pedro Matos Fernandes told a news conference other dams have enough water to make up for the restrictions.

“The situation of drought is worrying,” he said. “If the forecast becomes gloomier, we will have to go beyond these measures.”

IPMA said dry weather conditions were likely to continue in February.

Matos Fernandes said rules were imposed to ensure drinking water supply for at least two years if “not even a raindrop falls” in Portugal. Farmers have already voiced concerns, saying the drought could “severely” affect their crops and cattle.

The new norm

In 2021, a new study from Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich found that Europe is heading towards a future with more extreme droughts during the summer months. It is estimated that between 2080 and 2099, the Alps, Mediterranean, and the entire Iberian Peninsula could see summer droughts increase by at least 50%.

The World Economic Forum noted that the study demonstrates the need for “rapid climate crisis mitigation in Europe”, particularly water conservation.

It also estimated that the percentage of extreme droughts was the highest at 96% in July and 88% in August on the Iberian Peninsula.

Magdalena Mittermeier, the co-author of the study, said, “Unmitigated climate change, under the RCP8.5 scenario, will drastically increase the frequency, duration and intensity of summer droughts in many European regions.”

“Such extreme effects can be avoided by climate mitigation. This is why consistent mitigation of climate change as agreed on under the Paris Agreement is highly relevant in terms of droughts in Europe,” she added.

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