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Sustainable Living - A Matter of Life or Death - Sue Parker hopes the tide is turning on water quality concerns

Based on an article by Sue Parker in Algarve Resident, June 27th 2014. Algarve Resident is the leading English-language newspaper and the source of essential information for Residents and would-be Residents in the Algarve. More information about Algarve Resident...

‘In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.’ Those words of Nobel Prize winning author Albert Camus seem so incongruous as, in July and August (when it’s far too hot to hurry), we saunter through the arid Algarve landscape. Clearly Albert had not visited the Algarve in summer; however, swap the seasons and the saying makes more sense to us, as we look forward to the amazing rebirth of our natural world each December.

A healthy flowing river in springtim in the Algarve
How a healthy river should look: crystal clear flows and, in springtime, carpeted with Water Crowfoot which only grows in unpolluted water.

One of the joys of an Algarve spring (for there is no real winter) is that rivers and streams have a lively flow just when so many wild animals and plants need an abundance of flowing water. Summer visitors to the Algarve could be forgiven for thinking that we have no small streams at all and only a handful of slow-flowing larger rivers such as the Guadiana, on the border with Spain, and the Arade, which enters the sea at Portimao.

A parched riverbed
Above: this parched river is no good to man nor beast

Some of our streams will have always dried up in summer, irrespective of human influence. (There are plenty of watercourses like that in the UK; they are called winterbournes.)Many more run dry because of our excessive demands on a severely limited resource.

During droughts we become concerned about filling swimming pools, using garden hoses and washing cars. Unlike the poor souls in the Somerset Levels, we in the Algarve are seldom worried by persistent floods and their consequences. The recent over-supply in southern England raises the prospect of millions of pounds of tax-payers’ money being spent in years ahead in an attempt to avoid, but in reality at best only to put back, the day when homes built on what are essentially winter riverbeds will be flooded yet again.

Quantity of flowing water is only one key factor, however; there is also the matter of quality to consider. For many people the term water quality is simply a question of whether the sea lapping our shores is clean enough to swim in. ’Blue Flag’ beach status is not all that matters; river water quality is important too. If a river or a lake is so polluted that fish, plants and other animals cannot survive in it, then obviously it is not good enough for our use either.

Water abstraction intensifies pollution.  The normal practice is to take water from the upper reaches of rivers, usually via reservoirs. We ‘treat’ it so that it becomes safe to use and to drink, and then, after we have re-polluted it we clean it up again before returning our waste water to the river lower down. But what happens in between?  Inevitably in the diminished stretch of river any inflowing or diffuse pollution is more concentrated, and the result is greater harm to the inhabitants of the remaining toxic trickles.

Many see reservoirs as a major cause of depleted rivers, but we cannot survive without storing water for the dry season.  Provided sufficient capacity is reserved for maintaining natural summer flows, reservoirs can be the saviours of wildlife in drought years, helping to mitigate for abstraction of water by farming lower down in the valleys. Judicious releases of reservoir water can save wildlife threatened with death due to insufficient flow or oxygen starvation in the lower reaches.

There are many aspects of our lives that we are powerless to influence, but river water quantity and quality are not in that category. King Canute’s watery project was always doomed, but we need not and should not fail, provided we play our part rather than merely saying, ‘They should do something about it’.

A deep tranquil river pool in the Algarve
Above: a tranquil pool: good for the human spirit and the local wildlife

The Water Framework Directive is a Europe-wide commitment to establish and carry out river basin management plans, with objectives agreed at international level and action carried out at community level. A stated aim is to achieve good chemical and ecological status in all rivers and lakes by 2015. Now in theory it might be possible to achieve good chemical status while leaving only a risible residue of water in a lake or a tiny trickle in a river, but for good ecological status both the quantity and the quality of water matter. Therein lies hope for the natural world… but only if we turn plans into action before it is too late.  At least half of Europe’s rivers are likely to fail to reach the required standard by 2015. 

Our rivers are in crisis: water use is exceeding water availability, pricing does not incentivise more efficient use, and ecosystems are being undermined as a result. Apart from maintaining pressure on government to meet these commitments, we can all help by minimising our own water use. It really is a matter of life or death.

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