The Stream, January 31, 2024: In Portugal, a Proposed Lithium Mine Threatens Ancient Waterways and Wildlife

A woman and child walk through an informal settlement near São Paulo, Brazil. Photo © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue.


  • New research reveals that global warming made the ongoing drought in the Amazon basin 30 times more likely to occur.
  • A global analysis of aquifers shows that groundwater reserves are declining overall, yet close to half are showing improved water retention or growth. 
  • In northeastern Portugal, a proposed open-pit lithium mine threatens ancient water channels and a nearby national park.
  • The European Union has approved a “polluter pays” rule that will see cosmetic companies cover the majority of the costs associated with removing microplastics from urban wastewater.

Dozens of wildfires continue to ravage Colombia, a traditionally wet country experiencing drought and heat waves linked to climate change.

“One of the hardest things is finishing a shift and turning back to look at the mountains only to see more hot spots.” — Santiago Botello, a risk-management coordinator for Bogotá’s volunteer firefighters. 

Usually wet this time of year, drought and high temperatures have sparked more than a dozen wildfires in Colombia, including multiple fires in the mountains surrounding the capital Bogotá, the New York Times reports

Non-native flora, including pine and eucalyptus trees, added fuel — their dry leaves burning quickly in the hot conditions. Mountain farmers have been displaced, and many native animals, including a diversity of birds and snakes, have been killed. Helicopters hauling buckets of water, and more than 600 wildland firefighters, continue to fight the fires, which have potential to extend into the Andes Mountains.

— Christian Thorsberg, Interim Stream Editor

Recent WaterNews from Circle of Blue

The Lead

Western Europe’s largest open-pit lithium mine may soon be built in northeastern Portugal, a development that many residents fear will upend generations of livestock farming and forestry, and tarnish the local landscape’s many blues and greens, Al Jazeera reports

Savannah Resources, a United Kingdom-based mining company, received preliminary approval last May to develop the mine in Barroso, a mountainous region which borders Peneda-Geres National Park. The government gave the company approval to mine 840 hectares, “three-quarters of which is community-owned land.”

Residents are fearful and angry. Ancient irrigation channels, pastures, and waterways are already under threat from initial digs. More than 100 species of butterflies, including some of Europe’s rarest, call the region home. Lepidopterists warn that populations and migrations will be affected, should their habitat be impacted. Freshwater pearl mussels, a “critically endangered” species that keeps waterways clean, will also be under threat. 

Throughout Portugal, 199 mines sit abandoned, many of which continue to impact the local communities. According to the European Commission, demand for lithium, a key component in electric vehicle batteries, “will grow 60 times by 2050.”

In November, Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa resigned following investigations into illegal lithium mining exploration schemes, Politico reports.

This Week’s Top Water Stories, Told In Numbers


Number of times “more likely” global warming made the ongoing drought in the Amazon rainforest, according to a recent analysis from World Weather Attribution, Reuters reports. Over the past year, climate change led to the drying of rivers, deaths of endangered freshwater dolphins and thousands of fish, and brought extreme temperatures to all nine rainforest countries, including Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. Researchers predict that the drought is expected to worsen this year, especially once the rainy season begins to wane in May. The El Niño weather phenomenon, while contributing to less rainfall, had no impact on the surge in hot weather, the analysis said. 



Percent of the removal costs cosmetics companies must pay to rid tiny microplastics from urban wastewater, The Guardian reports. The rule was drafted and approved by the European Union, though has not yet gone into effect. “This will make our water cleaner and protect our health,” Virginijus Sinkevičius, the European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, said. The ruling is part of a recent EU crackdown on water pollution. By 2035, member states will be required to “remove organic matter from urban wastewater before releasing it into the environment in all communities with more than 1,000 people,” according to The Guardian. And by 2045, nitrogen and phosphorus will need to be removed from water treatment plants that serve at least 10,000 people.

On the Radar

A new study analyzing trends in reservoirs around the world suggests that while available groundwater is declining globally, “depletion isn’t inevitable,” Scientific American reports. Researchers analyzed nearly 1,700 aquifers from more than 40 countries, in regions with varying amounts of crops being grown. The team found that 36 percent of the measured aquifers were losing water at more than 0.1 meters per year, and 16 percent were losing water at more than 0.5 meters per year. In 20 percent, water declines were slowing; in 16 percent, declines were being reversed; and aquifers were actually growing over time in 13 percent of measured sites.  

More Water News

Manatee Aggregation: During a recent cold snap in Florida, more than 900 threatened manatees huddled together in a Blue Spring State Park freshwater spring, a record-breaking gathering, BBC reports.

Corbassière Glacier: The Swiss glacier, a “living inventory of air pollution,” is melting, disappearing crucial data and information about past climates, Yale Environment 360 reports

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply