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Posts tagged ‘Iberian Land of Portugal’

40 die in fires in Portugal, Spain; Rain helps firefighters

October 17, 2017

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Rain and lower temperatures are helping emergency teams in Portugal and Spain fight the forest fires that killed at least 40 people over the weekend. Civil Protection authorities say wildfires in Portugal were under control by Tuesday morning, after at least 36 people died and dozens were injured. Portugal, which still has seven people missing in the blazes, began three days of national mourning on Tuesday.

In northwest Spain, where four people have died in the fires, regional authorities in Galicia say 27 forest fires are still out of control Tuesday, seven of them close to inhabited areas. Investigations are still underway to find the cause for the late-season wave of hundreds of forest fires, which officials in both countries are blaming mostly on arsonists.

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Portugal faces dire drought, the worst in more than 20 years

September 11, 2017

SANTA SUSANA, Portugal (AP) — Portugal’s Pego do Altar reservoir looks like disused quarry now, its bare, exposed slopes rising up steeply on each side and shimmering in the sun as it holds barely 11 percent of the water it was designed for.

The huge lake where people used to swim, boat and fish has shrunk to a slither of water, surrounded by baked, cracked earth and a handful of white fish carcasses. It is a desolate and disturbing sight — and one that has become increasingly common in southern Portugal.

While parts of the United States and the Caribbean are drowning in water amid ferocious hurricanes, a drought is tightening its grip on wide areas of Portugal. More than 80 percent of the country is officially classified as enduring “severe” or “extreme” drought — conditions among the country’s worst in more than 20 years.

Water has sporadically been scarce in this part of southern Europe for centuries. But Portuguese Environment Secretary Carlos Martins tells The Associated Press that “it has gotten worse with climate change.”

The prolonged dry spell is most acute in the Alentejo region, south and east of Lisbon, the capital. Here, the essential river is the Sado, Portugal’s seventh-largest. As its flow has dwindled, so the reservoirs in the river basin, such as Pego do Altar, are drying up. In some places now, the Sado is a thin, knee-deep flow.

The receding water at Pego do Altar has exposed a small, 18th-century stone bridge which was last seen in 1999. Locals have been coming to take photos of themselves next to it. The dead fish in Pego do Altar’s dried mud are the canary in the mine for authorities. Large numbers of fish dying due to depleted oxygen levels would contaminate the area’s public drinking water, so a program to scoop out the doomed fish from four Sado basin reservoirs is now underway. It’s a race against the clock.

“It’s a preventive measure,” says Carlos Silva, a spokesman for EDIA, a state company that helps manage the Alentejo’s water supply. “It would be a catastrophe if the fish started dying off” in large quantities.

As gray herons watch from the bank and birds of prey glide silently by, fishermen Tomaz Silva, 25, and Miguel Farias, 29, nudge their boat toward silver nets buoyed by empty plastic water bottles that they had strung across the reservoir the previous day. Chatting in a strong Alentejo accent, they throw the fish into a box where they flap around. Some weigh 5 or 6 kilograms (up to 13 pounds) and are as long as an adult’s arm. Many, however, are skinny due to the fierce competition for diminishing food.

With the water level so low, it’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Silva and Farias catch on average between 1 and 1.5 metric tons a day. Their haul is taken away to be turned into fishmeal. Over about six weeks, officials expect to harvest more than 100 metric tons from the four Sado reservoirs.

Martins, the environment secretary, said a government drought monitoring committee is working to reconcile the conflicting demands placed on the region’s scarce water resources. Making sure there’s enough water for drinking faucets is the top priority, he says.

That could end up bringing a ban on the irrigation of farmland, which uses up 80 percent of the region’s available water. Farmers are fretting over their parched pasture land and wilting cereal crops. Cattle breeders are demanding drinking water for their livestock. And energy companies want water to flow to keep up their hydroelectric production at dams.

The Alentejo is a famously pretty part of Portugal, with groves of olive trees, stone pines and cork oaks — native varieties resilient enough to survive its weather extremes. But it’s also one of the European Union’s poorest regions — sparsely populated, covering 34 percent of the country but containing only 7 percent of its population. Almost half of its residents are more than 65 years old.

Many people here make a living from farming, and cutting off irrigation would sound the death knell for their jobs. At Torrao, a 15th-century hilltop village with a panoramic view of the Sado basin’s Vale do Gaio reservoir, locals live with daily evidence of the drought.

Antonio Sardinha, an 82-year-old subsistence farmer with thick fingers and a sun-kissed complexion, says he has never seen the reservoir so low. Official records say it’s at 18 percent of capacity. The water in his well is so shallow, he says, that his bucket hits the bottom.

“Water is the key to everything,” Sardinha said. “You need water to create everything else.”

Wildfires rage on untamed in Greece, Portugal and Corsica

August 13, 2017

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Hot and dry weather stoked another round of wildfires burning across southern Europe on Sunday as firefighters in Greece, Portugal and the French island of Corsica struggled to corral the flames.

Greek authorities voiced suspicions that at least some of the several dozen fires that broke out on both the mainland and the island of Zakynthos over the weekend were started deliberately. Over 4,000 firefighters were battling more than 250 wildfires in Portugal, which requested assistance from other European Union nations.

On Corsica, fires that have raged since Thursday forced the evacuation of 1,000 people, authorities said. The latest blaze in Greece started Sunday afternoon in a pine forest and had damaged as many as 20 houses by night in a town north of the capital. Kalamos, a town some 44 kilometers (27 miles) north of Athens, is a favorite vacation spot for Athenians.

Authorities said they have shut down a large portion of the local road network as the blaze expanded in several directions, including toward Athens. They also evacuated two children’s campgrounds. Portugal Civil Protection Agency spokeswoman Patricia Gaspar said the country set an annual single-day record for new fires on Saturday, when 268 separate fires started. That surpassed the previous year-to-date high mark of 220 fires reached Friday.

While the weather isn’t helping, nature was responsible for igniting a minority of the blazes, Gaspar said. “We know that more than 90 percent of the fires have a human cause, whether intentional of from negligence. Both are crimes,” she said.

Authorities believe a series of fires raging on several fronts on the western Greek island of Zakynthos were started deliberately. The country’s fire service said there were “well-founded suspicions of foul play” after five fires broke out late Saturday and early Sunday, followed by another three later on Sunday morning.

Greek Justice Minister Stavros Kontonis, who is also the local member of parliament, said of the multiple blazes while visiting the island: “This is planned.” The fire service said 10 of the 12 fires burning on Zakynthos were still unchecked, with high winds making it difficult to control the flames.

A total of 53 wildfires broke out in Greece on Saturday and several more did on Sunday, including on the island of Kefalonia, next to Zakynthos. Authorities said the multiple blazes had stretched firefighting capabilities to the limit. Firefighting planes and helicopters cannot fly at night, adding another degree of difficulty. In Zakynthos, authorities were monitoring the progress of the flames with a small camera-equipped drone, which provides information to firefighters on the ground, the fire service said.

Trouble controlling flames and forecasts calling for more hot and dry days ahead prompted Portugal’s government to ask other countries in Europe for help, Minister of Internal Administration Constanca Urbano de Sousa said.

Portugal has been especially hard hit by wildfires, including one that killed 64 people in June, during a summer marked by high temperatures and a lack of rain. Wildfires in Portugal this year have accounted for more than one-third of the burned forest in the entire 28-country European Union.

The EU’s Emergency Management Service said the amount of forestland blackened in Portugal as of Aug. 5 was about five times larger than the average recorded in the country between 2008 and 2016. In southern France, fierce flames have ravaged some 2,100 hectares (5,190 acres) of land since Thursday — with 2,000 hectares (4,940 acres) burned in Corsica alone.

French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said there have been no casualties from the fires thanks to the efforts by 1,200 firefighters and the air teams that carried out 300 water drops in 24 hours. While the mainland fires were tamed over the weekend, the Corsica blazes were ongoing and still required “major means,” Collomb said.

Firefighters continued to fight wildfires in the Corsican towns of Manso and the hilly Pietracorbara. Northern Corsica Prefect Gerard Gavory said over 1,000 thousand residents and tourists have been evacuated.

Portugal battles to contain deadly wildfires amid heat, wind

June 20, 2017

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Emergency services in Portugal said Tuesday they were making headway in their battle to control a major wildfire that killed 64 people in the central area of the country, but another blaze nearby grew in size and caused concern.

The Civil Protection Agency said about 1,200 firefighters and nine water-dropping aircraft were fighting the deadly wildfire in Pedrogao Grande, which was raging for a third consecutive day about 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of Lisbon. Officials said that blaze was mostly contained though still burning fiercely.

Temperatures forecast to reach 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit), gusting winds and bone-dry woodland were fueling the blazes, Commander Vitor Vaz Pinto told reporters. Some resources were being diverted to Gois, about 20 kilometers from Pedrogao Grande, where almost 800 firefighters and four planes were battling the flames. Vaz Pinto said the Gois wildfire was “very fast and very explosive” and had forced the evacuation of 11 hill villages.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Antonio Costa ordered an investigation into what happened on Saturday night when the deaths occurred, 47 of them on a road as people fled the flames. Costa’s order asked three questions: whether the extreme weather could explain the scale of the disaster, why emergency services communications at times didn’t work, and why the road where the deaths occurred was not closed.

Portugal awaits foreign help to fight deadly wildfires

June 19, 2017

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — More than 1,500 firefighters in Portugal are still battling to control major wildfires in the central region of the country, where one blaze killed 62 people. Reinforcements are due to arrive Monday, including more water-dropping planes from Spain, France and Italy as part of a European Union cooperation program.

Portugal is observing three days of national mourning after 62 people were killed in a wildfire Saturday night around the town of Pedrogao Grande, which is by far the deadliest on record. Just over 1,000 firefighters are still attending that blaze about 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of Lisbon.

Scorching weather, with temperatures surpassing 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), as well as strong winds and dry woodland after weeks with little rain are fueling the blazes.

Eurovision winner greeted by ecstatic Portuguese nation

May 14, 2017

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Eurovision winner Salvador Sobral was greeted as a national hero upon his return home to Portugal on Sunday, a day after winning the song contest in Ukraine’s capital. The 27-year-old Sobral was a virtual unknown before his triumph in Kiev, but around 2,000 jubilant fans cheered his arrival at Lisbon’s airport.

“Without wanting to sound presumptuous, this win is very important for Portuguese culture,” Sobral said. “But I’m not a hero. That’s (local soccer star) Cristiano Ronaldo.” A visibly tired Sobral added: “I’m exhausted and just want to rest. I know this won’t last. I want to be known as a musician. Not as the Eurovision winner.”

His gentle romantic ballad Amar Pelos Dois (Love For Both) conquered all in Saturday night’s extravaganza, which was watched by millions of spectators around the world. “I’m happy my romantic song won, and I hope the gala stops being a popularity contest,” Sobral said at a news conference, while thanking Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso for his support.

The weekend was a busy one in Portugal, with Pope Francis’ visit to Fatima and Lisbon soccer team Benfica winning its fourth straight Portuguese league title, also on Saturday. But Sobral was the man of the hour on Sunday, after the Lisbon native with a heart condition put an end to the southern European country’s long misery in the famed Eurovision contest, which he took in a landslide.

Sobral won easily, giving Portugal its first Eurovision win since it started competing in the international competition in 1964, and prompting congratulatory messages from the country’s highest authorities.

“When we are very good, we’re the best of the best. Congratulations Salvador Sobral,” President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa wrote in a message Saturday night. Prime Minister Antonio Costa followed the lead with a tweet of his own.

“A page of history has been written in Portuguese this evening at Eurovision. Bravo Salvador! Bravo Portugal,” Costa said. The previous best Portuguese Eurovision ranking was 6th place, back in 1996. Unlike the 25 other competitors who performed on a wide stage backed by flashing lights, bursts of flames and other special effects, Sobral sang from a small elevated circle in the middle of the crowd, an intimate contrast to others’ bombast.

“Music is not fireworks, music is feeling,” he said while accepting the award. The feeling was never more mutual than Sunday afternoon, when Sobral was embraced by his countrymen and women upon arrival, as hundreds physically swarmed him at the airport concourse, chanting his name while being escorted by police.

Among them was Claudia Zellen, a 39-year-old social worker who, like many others across the country, praised the winning song, which Sobral performed in Portuguese next to his sister, Luisa, who wrote the tune and sat beside him at the welcoming news conference.

“It is a very emotional and different song, that sends a message of love and peace,” Zellen pointed out. “I think that Salvador is unique and that he is able to transmit beautiful things to all of us, even those that do not understand our language.”

Neighboring Spain, meanwhile, finished last after a poor performance by its representative, Manel Navarro. With Portugal rallying around its new national musical hero, even recently-crowned soccer champion Benfica took the time to congratulate Sobral.

“We aren’t the only winners this evening…! Well done Salvador Sobral!” the team posted on its official Twitter account. But one of the most surprising tweets came further north, from British novelist J.K. Rowling, author of the popular Harry Potter book series.

“Yay Portugal!” Rowling wrote. Sobral captured 758 points in the contest, 143 more than second-placed Kristian Kostov, from Bulgaria. His win ensured Portugal would host next year’s Eurovision contest.

“I hope to keep making music that means something and remain happy, playing it. Emotion always prevails,” Sobral said. “The song was meant to be sung in Portuguese, but we need to feel whatever we are singing, no matter the language.”

Mario Soares, Portugal’s former president and PM, dies at 92

January 07, 2017

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Mario Soares, a former prime minister and president of Portugal who helped steer his country toward democracy after a 1974 military coup and grew into a global statesman through his work with the Socialist International movement, has died. He was 92.

Lisbon’s Red Cross Hospital said in a statement he died there on Saturday afternoon with his son and his daughter at his bedside. The hospital did not provide a cause of death, but Soares had been a patient since Dec. 13 and in a coma for the past two weeks.

Soares, a moderate Socialist, returned from 12 years of political exile after the almost bloodless Carnation Revolution toppled Portugal’s four-decade dictatorship in 1974. As a lawyer, he had used peaceful means to fight the country’s regime, which eventually banished him.

Soares was elected Portugal’s first post-coup prime minister in 1976 and thwarted Portuguese Communist Party attempts to bring the NATO member under Soviet influence during the Cold War. He helped guide his country from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy and a place in the European Union.

“The loss of Mario Soares is the loss of someone who was irreplaceable in our recent history. We owe him a lot,” Socialist Prime Minister Antonio Costa said in India, where he was on a state visit. Costa said three days of national mourning will begin Monday and that Soares would have a state funeral at an unspecified date.

“His cause was always the same: freedom,” President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, said in a televised speech. “At decisive moments, he was always a winner.” Soares’ role as an international statesman was solidified through his work with the International Socialist movement. As a vice president from 1976, he led diplomatic missions that sought to help resolve conflicts in the Middle East and Latin and Central America.

Soares was visiting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the Gaza Strip when Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in Tel Aviv in 1995. Both Arafat and Rabin were longtime friends of Soares.

In 1986, Soares became Portugal’s first civilian president in 60 years. His broad popularity brought him two consecutive five-year terms. During terms as prime minister and foreign minister, Soares helped rehabilitate Portugal on the international stage after decades of isolation under the dictatorship established by Antonio Salazar in the 1930s. Soares’ insistence on using the ballot box instead of weapons to end the dictatorship won him respect around the world.

Soares belonged to a generation of influential European Socialist leaders that also included his close friend Francois Mitterrand of France, Germany’s Willy Brandt, Olof Palme in Sweden, and Felipe Gonzalez in Spain.

The 1974 coup shot Lisbon to the center of Cold War attentions as Portugal lurched to the political left after the dictatorship’s fall. Days after the Carnation Revolution — so named because people stuck red carnations in soldiers’ rifle barrels — Soares returned home by train from Paris to a rapturous welcome from crowds that flocked to meet him at Lisbon’s Santa Apolonia train station.

The Communist Party’s influence surged following the coup, prompting fears in the West that Portugal — a founding member of the Atlantic military alliance — would come under the Soviet Union’s influence and encourage other radical leftist movements in western Europe.

Soares said that at an October 1974 meeting in Washington, then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told him he thought Portugal was doomed to communist rule. But Frank Carlucci, the new U.S. ambassador to Lisbon and later head of the CIA, argued that moderate democratic forces, especially Soares’ Socialists, would prevail. The 1976 election proved Carlucci right.

Soares, an affable figure and eloquent campaigner who led the Socialist Party, won the country’s first entirely free elections and became prime minister. Portugal had western Europe’s last colonial empire, and Soares was instrumental in quickly granting independence to Portugal’s five colonies in Africa. Protracted wars had sapped the Portuguese economy and soured its relations with other western nations that had turned away from colonial rule years earlier.

Soares later was criticized for cutting the colonies loose so abruptly. All of them — Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, and Sao Tome and Principe — became single-party Marxist states supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba after their independence. Angola and Mozambique drifted into civil wars as proxies in the Cold War struggle for influence in Africa.

Soares held posts in a string of governments that lasted less than a year in the post-revolution political chaos. Banks were nationalized, spooking wealthy financiers who fled the country, and poor farmers seized the land they had long worked at large private estates.

Born in Lisbon in 1924, Soares started out as a radical student organizer and became a renowned defense lawyer. He was a relentless opponent of Salazar’s regime, which along with Franco’s roughly contemporary rule in neighboring Spain, shut off the Iberian peninsula to outside influences. Salazar’s secret police, known by its acronym PIDE, jailed Soares 12 times and exiled him twice, once to the island of Sao Tome off west Africa.

After democracy, Soares served four times as the country’s foreign minister and three times as prime minister. As prime minister in 1986 he ushered Portugal into the European Economic Community — later the European Union. That turned out to be a watershed year which placed the country on a fast-track modernization program.

Soares capped his political career that year by becoming head of state. He rapidly set about keeping his campaign pledge to serve as “President of all the Portuguese” after years of division and unrest which brought eight governments between 1978 and 1985.

He was a fierce critic of the economic liberalism embraced by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British leader Margaret Thatcher which was alien to his Socialist convictions about the benefits of welfare capitalism.

As president, Soares established a professional, if cool, relationship with center-right Social Democratic Prime Minister Anibal Cavaco Silva, who admired Thatcher. Though an unlikely team, Soares and Cavaco Silva together oversaw the shedding of many left-inspired economic structures, such as the nationalization of banks, adopted after the coup.

Opponents claimed Soares had abandoned his Socialist ideals, but Soares insisted his “cohabitation” with Cavaco Silva contributed to the country’s new-found stability. He won a thumping re-election victory to serve a second five-year term in 1991.

Soares then retired from politics to set up a cultural foundation. At the request of the United Nations, he became head of the Independent World Commission of the Oceans. He also led a U.N. fact-finding mission on human rights to Algeria in 1998.

He returned to politics in 1999, winning a seat in the European parliament as the main candidate of the Socialist Party but then failing to be elected head of the assembly. He also ran again for Portugal’s presidency in 2006, at the age of 82. Younger voters had little grasp of his historic achievements and he finished third.

He is survived by two children and five grandchildren.

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