Is the Portuguese water sector prepared for periods of extreme weather? A number of projects have been developed but an integrated strategy is needed

According to the most recent reports, southern Europe and the Mediterranean Basin – including Portugal and Spain – are among the main areas that are vulnerable to climate change impacts with serious consequences for the urban water cycle. Significant decreases in available water supply have already been documented, making water management a priority in the affected areas.

A trend towards drier conditions began to be observed in Portugal over the last decades of the 20th century, with lower rainfall and more frequent and persistent extreme weather events, including floods and drought. This means that the share of available water resources is decreasing. And projections up to the end of the century, obtained using various global climate models, agree that the trend is likely to continue and intensify.

Dealing with drought

The EU’s concern is expressed in the Blueprint to Safeguard European Water Resources of 2012. This blueprint evaluates water resource vulnerability to climate change. It views scarcity and droughts as crucial issues to consider when designing and implementing proper river basin management plans, which will deliver and ensure water supplies and security of water services in the future. Meanwhile, as a result of the Troika’s (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) financial adjustment programme in the wake of the global financial and economic crisis, water management became a secondary priority in Portugal.

A lot of wrong decisions were taken in 2011 and 2012. One was the placement of the River Basin District Authorities – financially and administratively independent regional water management bodies since 2008 – under the direct supervision of the Central Portuguese Environmental Agency. This brought delays and other consequences in the implementation of the regional hydrological plans, namely the River Basin Management Plans.

This incomprehensible political decision, not supported by technical or scientific evidence, and contrary to the European Water Framework Directive and the 2005 Portuguese Water Law, put increased pressure on the availability and quality of the supply and other relevant management issues.

Therefore it is prudent, and urgent, to plan and implement adaptation strategies to climate change, thus minimising its adverse combined impacts, especially concerning water resources.

Studying climate change

Nowadays, Portuguese utilities, municipalities and research centres are undertaking important studies and projects on climate change, water resources and water and sanitation services.

AdaptaClima-EPAL: A Contribution to the Study of Climate Change and Urban Water Cycle Adaptation was the most in depth study carried out by the Portuguese water utilities. It took place between 2010-14 and was carried out by EPAL, the largest Portuguese water supply company.

It serves 2.9 million people in 35 municipalities, including Lisbon, and supplies an average daily amount of 600,000m3 of water, and can produce a maximum of 1.1million m3/day. This project was launched following a decision by the EPAL executive board, when it became evident that more work was needed to protect the main surface and groundwater sources and to increase the resilience of the EPAL water system.

AdaptaClima-EPAL is a good example of a well-prepared and well-developed project to be followed by other water supply operators.

The strategic climate adaptation options laid out in the AdaptaClima study focus mainly on the evaluation of the impacts of climatic changes on surface and underground drinking water sources. The study assessed how to continue supplying water services to 2.9 million people while taking rising sea levels and salt intrusion risks into account. Global, regional and local socioeconomic and climate change scenarios were combined with regional climate and non-climate factors to accurately project likely scenarios for water resources at the end of this century.

Current and future vulnerabilities were assessed, taking into account the risks to climate events and the adaptive capacity to lead with the factors considered such as forecast demographic projections, land use and the effects on water quality, as well as estimations of climate change until the end of the century. This evaluation highlighted serious increases in qualitative and quantitative vulnerability in the EPAL main water sources. The next phase of the project will develop solutions on how to avoid or minimise them.

Adopting risk monitoring and uncertainty into decision processes and into the choice of the best mitigation and adaptation measures will be indispensable to guaranteeing the future water sector sustainability.

Adopting risk monitoring and uncertainty into decision processes and into the choice of the best mitigation and adaptation measures will be indispensable to guaranteeing the future water sector sustainability. So, to ensure enough resilience of the water supply systems from the source to tap in any water utility – EPAL or any other operator – we must analyse carefully a set of multiple mitigation and adaptation measures, considering namely:

  • Changes in the water supply pattern.
  • Changes in the water demand pattern.
  • Changes and reinforcement of internal processes and skills.
  • Adopting innovation as a permanent ‘way of life’.
  • Implementing a new kind of institutional relationship with all agents and stakeholders.
  • Ensuring water quality through high levels of safe water for all.
  • Ensuring a strict protection of water abstractions and related sources.

Portugal’s ClimAdaPT.Local project

ClimAdaPT.Local is a project that includes 26 municipalities covering the whole continental territory of Portugal and the islands of Madeira and Azores. The main goals are to identify the most frequent climate vulnerabilities at local and regional levels and prepare and implement the appropriate adaptation strategies for each municipality and water utility infrastructure. The project disseminates strategies to deal with climate change through municipalities and other local and regional authorities, including water operators managed by these. The expected overall result is to build, in the future, a national network for climate change adaptation for all municipalities and regions.

The main concerns of the partners at the moment address the vulnerability related to frequent floods, the occurrence of droughts and their impact on urban infrastructures. The adaptation strategy of each participant was discussed in 2016.

BINGO project

At research level, the Bringing INnovation to onGOing water management (BINGO) project, chaired and conducted by LNEC, the Portuguese National Laboratory of Civil Engineering, is an advanced study, launched in 2015. It provides practical knowledge and tools to end users, water managers, decision -makers and policymakers affected by climate change to enable them to better cope with all climate projections, including droughts and floods.

This research project was selected and supported by the European Programme Horizon 2020, involving 20 European partners from six countries. One of the most relevant outcomes for the water sector is an integrated analysis of the impacts of climate change scenarios on the water cycle providing tools to be applied by different users at research and operational level.

Stakeholder engagement, preferably according to OECD proposals and recommendations, is also foreseen to be developed in the implementation of the above projects.

It is assumed that working with relevant stakeholders will provide synergies that will be useful in applying successful adaptation measures and therefore improve better practices in the different segments of the adaptation processes.

Some examples were given by Humberto Delgado Rosa, Director of the European Commission DG Climate Action, in a presentation to CNA, the Portuguese National Water Council, in Lisbon in 2013. He highlighted the combination of efforts and the sharing of information on how best to manage assets and carry out investments, as well as the sharing of information related to regulation, control and coordination of activities. He also pointed out the value of anticipating or managing potential crises and using mediation to influence public policies regarding the adoption of more integrated strategies to anticipate severe impacts of extreme events or gradual deterioration induced by the progressive increase of climate change. These examples, he said, “could be very positive in achieving good results”.

Therefore, there is no doubt that it is absolutely necessary to consider climate change as an essential dimension to achieve a better future performance for water resources and in water services management.

All of these projects are in accordance with the National Strategy for Adaptation to Climate Change and take on a relevant meaning as demonstrable initiatives to be followed by other utilities both at national and international level.

Talking about legislation, in addition to the national strategy, in 2006, the Portuguese government approved the National Programme of Climate Change whose purpose was to define the adoption of a set of harmonised measures and additional policies to be assumed by different affected sectors.

However, despite all the projects described above, Portugal does not yet have a consolidated, integrated strategy to forecast properly the effects of climate change on water services and to adapt to them.

The EPAL experience, as an important utility, is a good example to be followed but it is only one relevant contribution that needs to be extended to the whole country.

The other mentioned projects also make excellent contributions to the climate change discussion in Portugal, particularly taking into account the tools they will provide (BINGO). ClimAdaPT.Local will ensure that the principle of subsidiarity is adopted in the implementation process, especially in municipalities.

So, passing to an integrated national policy, building a network of operative interactions and guaranteeing the participation of all partners and stakeholders is needed.

Finally, it is necessary to emphasise that a consistent institutional reform of the water sector and water resources management must be implemented at the same time, restoring the ARH and a National Water Authority to water resources management, reversing what was changed by the former Portuguese government and designing a stable and sustainable model of water and sanitation services.

Working on at least these two strands and taking into account the framework of the 2015 Paris Agreement, already adopted by the Portuguese government, Portugal will be equipped to manage the challenges of climate change and the consequent vulnerability we will be faced with in the future.


By Rui Godinho, President of the General Assembly, APDA – Portuguese Association of Water Supply and Waste Water Services

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