The border, the river, and the problem

Looking with a birds-eye view to Lisbon, you might notice the mountains, the beautiful buildings, or the Ponte 25 de Abril that spans impressively over the Tagus river. This river is a staple in Portuguese panoramas but beneath the glistering surface of the water, some concerning challenges lay low.

The Tagus river has its origin in Spain and comes to shore in Lisbon, Portugal. Through the years, the river has become very polluted by an array of reasons. From paper factories dumping their waste into the river to ferries polluting the water. A more pressing problem is coming all the way from Spain. Although an official agreement between Spain and Portugal is made to let through a regulated amount of water to the Portuguese borders, the agreements are not being honoured.

Spain’s  influence

The Tagus is dammed 51 times solely in Spain. The dams siphon of water to other regions in Spain to irrigate agricultural land. “The irrigation construction started in 1966, but because of a miscalculation the siphoning brings a lot of problems to us today,” tells João Coelho press representative of proTEJO, a Portuguese environment organisation, “The engineers forgot to count Spain’s cyclical droughts into their calculations. They forgot to look towards the future and now each year the water supply for Portugal and Spain lessens. ” ProTEJO also claims that Spain uses up way more water than it can afford, emptying the water sources and worsening the water scarce.

In addition to an oncoming water shortage, Spain makes a habit out of polluting the Tagus before the river even crosses the Portuguese border, tells Coelho: “The Spaniards dump polluted water that was used for agriculture back into the Tagus. They were also planning to build a nuclear waste treatment plant bordering the Almaraz nuclear power plant. This new addition would be a tragedy for us, because the new plant would border Portugal.” The new nuclear waste treatment plant would cool down the water being used in the Almaraz plant in the Tagus, further polluting the already dirty river.

To prevent the construction of the treatment plant, the Portuguese government put in a formal complaint with the European Union. In 2017, Spain and Portugal came to an agreement by negotiations with the European Commission. Spain promised to hold off on building the plant until Portugal could inspect the structural plans carefully. “Portugal does not have any nuclear plants and is just not particularly in favour of nuclear energy. Even though we weren’t sure that the Alvaraz nuclear plant addition would have repercussions for Portugal, we still were owed an investigation,” Coelho adds.

Today, the nuclear waste treatment plant plans are still on the table for the Spanish government. Some Portuguese members of the green party started protesting the Alvaraz nuclear energy plant as a whole in 2020, fighting for its closure. Since then the Spanish government has not yet reacted to extending or shortening the power plant’s life.

Portugal’s contributions

The people who only blame Spain for the pollution of the Tagus would be in the wrong. Portugal has a huge contribution to the pollution of the river. Along the borders of the Tagus, paper mill factories have been settled for decennia. Throughout the years, the factories have discharged waste into the rivers without any monitoring. When dead fish and slimy foam started floating to the surface, the Portuguese government stepped in. “Today we have a lot of regulations monitoring the paper mill factories to make sure they comply with the rules,” explains Marya Antunes, representative of The Portuguese Environment Agency (APA).

Still, some slip-ups recently occurred near the Abrantes dam. In 2020 dead fish and foam again covered the waters near the dam. “We investigated the pollution and could trace it back to a paper mill factory located close to the Abrantes dam. The factory was sanctioned appropriately and we hope this incident was a one-off,” Antunes states, “Every day we work towards keeping the Portuguese waters clean. Following and abiding by regulations is so important to reach this goal.”

Future prospects

Down the road, the Portuguese government has grand plans to further clean up the river. A fleet of diesel-run ferries will be replaced by fully electric ferries between 2022 and 2024, cutting a huge source of pollution in the river. There will be ten electric ferries that will be able to transport 540 passengers each. The ferries will run on the Tagus river from Lisbon to three different cities across the river.

“Changing up the ferries is working towards a cleaner river. We applaud this, but there are still so many changes to be made looking towards the future,” Coelho concludes.