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Drought, water shortage and climate change: crisis or opportunity in Portugal?

Those who live on the Iberian Peninsula can notice the change in rainfall distribution, and even in its reduction in volume. Portugal has most of its continent with average annual rainfall rates of less than 600 millimetres. The urban population has grown and, in addition, the use of water in more technified and competitive agriculture has increased exponentially. Over the last 20 years government investments in large dams and reservoirs have failed to avert the water crisis threatening many rural activities essential to the entire population.

Whose responsibility is this situation? Climate change? This is the first answer. Which is better: finding the culprits or helping to find a solution? We know that there is a pact between European countries to reduce climate change. But can the results be felt in the short term for something that we have been changing for a long time? Most probably we will continue with the water crisis for years to come. It is necessary to react with actions of more immediate impact and these will be much more effective for those who live and work in rural areas.

Historically, the way agriculture and cattle-raising have dealt with natural resources for food production has been quite irresponsible. The rhetoric that this traditional model of farming has been in Mediterranean Europe for millennia has resulted in the many problems that have worsened today. The contemporary model of intensive cultivation with removal of original vegetation also has an unfavourable water balance. Throughout this period, the alteration of the balance of the environment in order to establish the various crops took little notice of the cycles in nature. When it comes to water, its relationship with a natural resource has been little noticed.

The soil is capable of maintaining and regulating the waters that will reach the water table, reducing the rate of water evaporation, helping to recover puddles, regulating the volume of streams and dams. It is necessary to look at the soil as something that contains a greater diversity of plant species. Nature is capable of showing us the way. Is it possible to have a productive and economically viable agriculture that also contributes to using and contributing to water resources? The soil, by keeping it covered all year round and receiving vegetable residues afterwards, can raise the level of organic matter. This can help retain ten times its weight in water.

The circulation of water in ecologically more biodiverse agricultural systems contributes to short term responses in the field with consequences for water users in urban centres as well. This new agriculture is gaining strength under various names. Whatever it is called, agricultural sectors should seek to reduce space for extensive monocultures and make more space for diversity. The integration of agriculture with the natural landscape that once existed is necessary for better water management. This is the opportunity that is passing for the agricultural sector to turn a crisis into a strategy for its future.

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