LAGOS, Portugal (Reuters) - Like many Britons in Portugal, Richard Alan moved to the sun-drenched southern Algarve region to retire. He bought a farm, married the love of his life and grew a vegetable garden. Then he started running out of water.
He, and some environmentalists, blame an avocado production boom in recent years for mopping up already scarce water as a drought linked to climate change blights the area.
Avocados guzzle four times more water than Algarve’s traditional orange crops. Plantations of the fruit cover some 1,600 hectares (3,950 acres), nearly double the area in 2018.
Not far from Alan’s farm in the sleepy village of Barao de Sao Joao, 200 hectares of avocado fields suck up 3.5-4.1 million litres of water per day, depending on the season.
“I’m sure what used to be groundwater is now going to avocados or evaporated,” said Alan, 74, who collects rainwater from his roof on the rare occasions it falls.
His well is nearly dry and the landscape around his property is parched.
“People live in this area ... because they want to be with nature,” he said. “If you take away the water, there is no nature.”
Around 16 km (10 miles) away, one of the region’s main dams, Bravura, is 18% full, the lowest level in Portugal. The drought monitoring commission said in a recent report Algarve’s dams only have enough water to last until the end of the year.
“A disaster will happen soon,” said Monica Viana, president of anti-monoculture environmental group Regenerarte. “Climate change is very present and the Algarve is no exception. We don’t want to allow the avocado to expand.”
People like Viana argue producers should opt for crops endemic to the area, such as olives, carob or cork-oak.
“When avocados no longer have the price they have now these properties will be abandoned, but the impacts will stay here,” said environmental lawyer Rui Amores.
Avocado producers acknowledge water shortages. Some have implemented methods to use less, and urged the government to act.
From toast to smoothies, the avocado has become popular worldwide.
In Lisbon, restaurant Avocado House serves a variety of avocado-based dishes to a mostly young crowd looking for healthy meals that they like to display on Instagram.
“I feel these new generations are completely turned to healthy food,” said owner Rui Barata.
Avocados are also lucrative.
Farmers sell 1 kg of oranges for about 0.5 euros ($0.59), while a kilo of avocados sells on average for 2.20 euros, according to the regional agriculture authority. Production costs are also lower thanks to less pest control required.
“This is trendy, it is ‘green gold’,” said Jose Campos, a young avocado farmer. Like more than half of Algarve’s 110 producers, he partners with Trops, the largest avocado marketer in Spain, to sell all of his crop.
Trops representative Duarte Pereira said 2,500 tonnes of avocados were shipped to Spain last year and then exported across Europe. This year, exports are expected to double.
But the lack of water might bring Algarve’s avocado dreams to a halt sooner than expected.
“If the water issue is not solved I don’t know if these plantations have a future in the Algarve,” Campos said, urging authorities to implement solutions including pumping river water into dams.
Head of the Algarve agriculture authority, Pedro Monteiro, said that although there is a potential to expand avocado crops, the lack of water is putting off some investors.
Trops’ Pereira said producers already use water-saving technologies such as drip irrigation.
“Most of our producers are farmers who know water is invaluable,” he said. “Without it all of this is lost.”
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Reporting by Catarina Demony; Additional reporting by Miguel Pereira and Rafael Marchante; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Mike Collett-White
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