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P ortugal is a European country located on the Iberian Peninsula in the southwestern part of the continent. Portugal has a land area of 35,672 square miles (92,391 square kilometers), including the Atlantic island groups of the Azores and Madeira, and an estimated population of 10.6 million people in 2006. The country may be divided into five main physiographic units that form a succession of hilly terrains and depressions occupied by the large Iberian rivers such as the Douro, the Tagus, and the Guadiana. The climate is cool and rainy in the northern mountains and turns progressively warmer and drier toward the south, with near arid conditions in the Algarve region.
Air pollution is becoming an important issue in cities such as Porto and Lisbon where European Union (EU) standards for air particulates and tropospheric ozone are frequently surpassed. In Porto, for instance, people suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (which has been linked to concentrations of particulates in the atmosphere) rank second in number in Europe after London. Traffic and fossil fuel burning (fossil fuels with high sulfur content are still relatively important in the country) are the main causes. In July 2000, the European Court ruled against Portugal for not having passed legislation dealing with 99 hazardous substances and for not having established temporal targets for their reduction. Moreover, acid rain has contributed to the defoliation of part of Portugal’s extensive forest cover.
Portugal has also received repeated calls from the EU to curb water pollution. In 1999 and 2000 the country was not complying with the Drinking Water Directive regarding concentrations of fecal and total coli bacteria forms. The European Commission decided to take Portugal to the European Court for failing to declare a sufficient number of protected zones under the Nitrates Directive and thus prevent groundwater pollution, especially in the irrigated agricultural areas of Setibal and the Algarve.
Soil degradation is one of the most important environmental problems of Portugal, especially when linked to forest fires. In 2002 almost 30 percent of the land was under cultivation, but a substantial part presents diminishing fertility as a result of erosion. In 2000 forests covered more than 40 percent of the total land area. Because of agricultural abandonment, forest areas are growing (140,850 acres [57,000 hectares] of net gain between 1990 and 2000). Portugal exports timber and is the world’s largest producer of cork (67 percent of the world total), mostly extracted from the vast forests of the Alentejo. In 2003, about five percent of the land was subject to environmental protection.
In 2003 forest fires affected more than 1.05 million acres (425,000 hectares), or five percent of the total land area of the country, during a series of fires that were the worst in Europe in 50 years. Portugal declared the whole country a disaster zone and received monetary aid from the Solidarity Fund of the EU. Despite governmental measures implemented to avoid large fires, the summers of 2004 and 2005 were again tragic. In 2005, during the worst drought experienced by the country in more than 50 years, some 320,000 acres (130,000 hectares) burned and 13 people died in fires in the center of the country.
Coastal urbanization for tourist development, especially in the Algarve, has also raised considerable concern. In this case, one of the more pressing issues is water availability. In 1998 the construction of the Alqueva Dam on the Guadiana River began. Once completed (in 2025), it will have created the largest artificial lake in Europe (97 square miles [250 square kilometers]), with a total capacity of
146 million cubic feet (4.150 cubic hectometers). Though originally designed for irrigation, a growing proportion of the water will go for tourism uses, especially golf courses. The dam’s environmental effects are expected to be numerous. The Alqueva Dam will not only submerge prime agroecological land but it is thought that it will also affect fisheries at the mouth of the Guadiana River.
- Diez et al., Survey of Organotin Compounds in Rivers and Coastal Environments in Portugal 1999-2000 (Elsevier Ltd., 2006);
- P.R. Goncalves, R.A.R. Boaventura, and C. Mouvet, “Sediments and Aquatic Mosses as Pollution Indicators for Heavy Metals in the Ave River Basin (Portugal),” Science of the Total Environment (v.114, 1992);
- A. Shakesby et al., “Wildfire Impacts on Soil-Erosion and Hydrology in Wet Mediterranean Forest, Portugal,” International Journal of Wildland Fire (v.3/2, 1993).