Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Irrigation in Portugal and in Europe as a Whole

José Nuncio plays an important role in irrigation both in Portugal and on the wider European level. Within Portugal, he is the president of the Sorraia Valley Irrigators and Water Users Association (Associação de Regantes e Beneficiários do Vale do Sorraia, ARBVS) as well as the president of the National Federation of Portuguese Irrigators (Federação Nacional de Regantes de Portugal, FENAREG), and the director of the Confederation of Portuguese Farmers. On the European level, he is the president of Irrigators of Europe (Irrigants d’Europe, IE), an international association of irrigation water management entities. In this interview, he tells Irrigation Leader about the ARBVS, the broader landscape of Portuguese irrigation, and why it is important to advocate for irrigated agriculture on the pan-European level as well. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your experience and how you came to be in your current position. 

José Nuncio: I have always had a connection to agriculture. I was born into a family of farmers with a special dedication to irrigation. I have a degree in agronomy from the the University of Lisbon’s School of Agriculture and a postgraduate degree in water, environment, and development, focusing on water supply and drainage, from the science and technology department of the University of Coimbra. 

I began my professional career in 1990, working in a regional agricultural development company. I later moved to a position providing technical services to the Association of Forestry Producers of Coruche, and in 1997, I joined the ARBVS as its deputy director. 

Currently, I am the president of FENAREG and IE, a member of the European Union of Water Management Associations, the director of the Euro-Mediterranean Irrigators Community, the director of the Confederation of Portuguese Farmers, and a member of the National Water Council of Portugal. I am also a farmer and am responsible for the management of my family’s agricultural companies.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the ARBVS and its history.

José Nuncio: The ARBVS, also known as the Sorraia Valley Irrigation Community, is a private farmers’ association established under public law in 1959. Its principal activity is the operation of the Sorraia Valley Irrigation Project, which manages irrigation water for a community of around 850 irrigators cultivating a total of 16,350 hectares (40,402 acres) of irrigated land. The ARBVS holds rights to water resources for agricultural use and manages a total yearly volume of 180 cubic hectometers (145,929 acre-feet) of water from the Montargil, Maranhão, and Magos Reservoirs. In addition to operating the irrigation project, it also operates three hydroelectric plants that produce energy from irrigation water flows and surplus flows and have a total installed capacity of 10.3 megawatts. The ARBVS also offers technical services to its farmers and has a program dedicated to regional development, which currently supports the local development associations in the region. We also carry out maintenance, repair, and modernization work throughout the year.

Our water distribution system works by gravity and has upstream water control. It distributes water through a network of 300 kilometers (186 miles) of open canals and pipes that measures the volume of water delivered to every customer’s farm.

We also participate in the primary organizations that defend the interests of irrigators on the national and international levels (FENAREG and IE, respectively), particularly when it comes to agricultural policy and the management of Portuguese and European water resources.

Irrigation Leader: Who are the ARBVS’s clients? 

José Nuncio: The association’s clients are irrigating farmers. Their number varies, but right now there are around 850. We also sell to three agri-industrial entities. Our principal service is the distribution of irrigation water, but we also provide technical aid to farmers and maintain infrastructure. The main crops in our area are corn, olives, and rice, but that has changed in the past depending on agricultural policy and market prices.

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about the structure of irrigation associations in Portugal in general?

A Rubicon automated gate installed at the ARBVS.

José Nuncio: In Portugal, irrigation associations or communities are private entities established under public law, composed of farmers who benefit from a given irrigation project. They have the right and the duty to administer the publicly owned irrigation infrastructure and water resources that make up the project. The infrastructure in question is funded by the national government and covers a defined area that has soils suitable for agricultural production and available water resources. In general, the infrastructure comprises a water source (a reservoir, well, or river), an irrigation network (canals and/or pipelines), and a drainage network. Each of those networks may have pump stations. 

The size of these irrigation associations and communities varies by region and the availability of resources. Within Portugal, they range from 400 to 16,500 hectares (988–40,772 acres). The smaller ones are obviously simpler, but they also tend to be less economically viable. The irrigation associations function according to a model of community water resources management that has been formalized and encoded in law since the first half of the 20th century, but which was inspired by the traditional water tribunals that still exist in certain places in the Iberian Peninsula and date back to the era before Roman civilization.

The initial investment in public irrigation projects was made by the national government beginning in the 1930s. The amortization period for these state investments was initially estimated at 50 years, but this held only for the first projects of the 1930s, since it rapidly turned out that the investment could easily be paid back thanks to the exponential growth in agricultural activity it indirectly enabled. 

In older communities, the water distribution system functioned by gravity, but in most modern or modernized ones, water is distributed under pressure, using the most modern technologies. 

The operation, maintenance, and other activities that the associations carry out are financed by their own revenues, making them economically independent. They charge for irrigation services at rates that are approved on a yearly basis by farmers in the general assembly of their irrigation associations and are then ratified by the national government. Users pay two different rates: a yearly assessment based on the size of the area they irrigate and a rate per volume of water used. Rates depend on the location, the availability of water, and the distribution system. 

This is a common model in the countries of the Mediterranean basin, where rainfall fluctuates over the course of the year and the collective management of water supplies and irrigation are crucial for successful agriculture. 

Irrigation Leader: How does the ARBVS compare to other Portuguese irrigation entities in terms of size? 

José Nuncio: The ARBVS is a standard-setter in Portugal’s organized irrigation sector and is one of its most important irrigation communities. It has the largest irrigated area and uses the largest volume of water of any irrigation entity in Portugal, aside from the Alqueva Development and Infrastructure Company, a state-owned company that manages the Alqueva Multipurpose Project. There are around three dozen other important irrigation communities in Portugal with service areas of 500–14,000 hectares (1,236–34,595 acres). 

Irrigation Leader: What are the top challenges for irrigators in Portugal? 

José Nuncio: As in any European Union (EU) country, the top current issue for the agricultural sector as a whole is the reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which has significant influence over agricultural prices and markets. Farmers are also interested in ensuring that the Common Agricultural Policy budget includes funding for investment and support for rural development. 

The repair of aging irrigation systems is another important issue. Many are more than 50 or even 80 years old and need to be modernized to make them suitable to meet new needs and compatible with new agricultural technologies.

José Nuncio in an olive grove.

We are also concerned about climate change, which threatens to significantly affect the Mediterranean region as a whole and Portugal in particular. We expect climatic instability to increase, droughts to lengthen, and extreme wind and rain events to become more common. As such, we consider it crucial to increase our water storage capacities by building new reservoirs in basins with water and by using our water and energy resources more efficiently. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about FENAREG. 

José Nuncio: FENAREG is a national nonprofit association that serves the public interest. It was founded in 2005 and brings together irrigation water management agencies, both those that manage surface water and those that manage groundwater, with the aim of jointly defending their legitimate interests and promoting a sustainable and competitive irrigation sector. Today, it has 27 member organizations, representing more than 25,000 irrigating farmers and nearly 125,000 hectares (308,881 acres) of irrigated land. FENAREG’s members manage 90 percent of Portugal’s organized irrigation, 76 percent of its public collective irrigation, and nearly 20 percent of its irrigation as a whole. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about IE. 

José Nuncio: Faced with the effects of EU and transnational policies on irrigation, the most important European water management associations formed IE. Its aim is to be a more effective dialogue partner for EU institutions, to strategically increase support for irrigation and irrigation communities, and to support the development of a sustainable and competitive irrigation sector. Irrigation and water management are key factors in developing a sustainable agricultural sector that can respond to the challenges of climate change and food security, and as such, it is important to develop medium- and long-term European strategies to promote them and to gather the resources those strategies require. 

The founders of IE are the national water management associations from the EU member states where irrigation is most important. They include Italy’s National Association of Drainage and Irrigation Boards, The National Federation of Irrigation Communities of Spain, Irrigators of France, and FENAREG. IE has the intention of bringing together the majority of national irrigated agriculture associations in Europe and is actively working to increase its membership. 

IE was founded in June 2016 and represents 75 percent of the irrigated land in Europe—7.7 million hectares (19 million acres) of a total of 10.2 million hectares (25.2 million acres)—most of it managed by the associated water users’ associations. 

IE aims to advance the goals of irrigated agriculture by involving representatives of the sector in decisionmaking and in the creation of relevant policy proposals for the sector. These include the following: first, to bring together the irrigated agriculture sector in a single institution at the European level and to restore the legitimacy of an appropriate use of water resources in modern agriculture, which will allow the sector to face the contradictions and challenges of globalization; second, to be the single voice of irrigated agriculture vis-à-vis EU institutions; and third, to participate in process management on all levels, beginning on the European level, with a special focus on highlighting the special characteristics of Mediterranean agriculture in the revised EU Water Framework Directive. 

Irrigation Leader: Why is it important to have an association representing irrigation communities on the European level? 

José Nuncio: It is crucially important that there be an organization to represent the sector and to work on a water policy for the Mediterranean region, with an emphasis on how southern Europe’s irrigated agriculture is showing the way forward for the harmonious and sustainable development of new irrigated areas in central, northern, and eastern Europe. IE aims to support the development of irrigation in those areas by putting them in dialogue with countries with a longer history of irrigation and an extensive experience with irrigation systems. 

Our principal objectives include the following: to promote and represent irrigated agriculture and agricultural water management on the European and international levels; to represent our members before the EU and its institutions; to encourage them to actively participate in the implementation of EU water policies; to promote and facilitate cooperation in irrigation and in the use and management of water in the agricultural sector among the relevant European organizations; to aid in the dissemination of information, points of view, guidelines, studies, working papers, positions, and opinions relevant to our members and EU institutions; to collaborate with universities on relevant research and innovation; and to highlight the benefits and positive externalities irrigation has for the environment and for society as a whole. 

Irrigation Leader: Is there anything else you would like to add? 

José Nuncio: I’d like to thank Irrigation Leader for the opportunity to introduce our organizations and our top concerns on the national and European levels. 

José Nuncio is the president of the Sorraia Valley Irrigators and Water Users Association and of Irrigators of Europe, among other positions. He can be contacted at secretariado@fenareg.pt.