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A perspective on sustainable environment

Water policy(ies) in Portugal

Inertia and challenges within the European framework
Politique(s) de l'eau au Portugal. Inertie et défis dans le cadre européen
Francisco da Silva Costa


The definition of water policy was strongly influenced by the role of water resources in the economic and social development of Portugal in several sectors. Its evolution is similar to many other policies, as decision-making mechanisms were developed to take into account an increasingly wider range of public and private bodies, both central and regional, connected to the offer and demand for water. The institutional design was thus continuously shaped and defined by those same goals. Portugal’s entry into the European Union gave a new incentive to water policy, more focused on the sustainable and integrated use of water resources. New challenges for the integrated management of water resources were taken on by public administration bodies in Portugal.

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1 - Historical Background to Water Resources Management in Portugal

1The definition of water policy was strongly influenced by the role of water resources in the economic and social development of Portugal in several sectors: irrigation, hydroelectric power generation, ports, water supply and sanitation (Zucco and Costa, 2015).

2Like other countries deriving from the Napoleonic Code, Portugal retained significant marks of Roman law in its water legislation, which endured into the 21st century (Magalhães et al., 2014). In legal-institutional terms, the modern period in water management in Portugal dates from 1884, when the organizational plan for the Water Services and its corresponding regulations were introduced. In 1919, Decree No. 5787-III, dated 10th May, constitutes the first “Water Law” (MAOTDR, 2008). Although it is widely acknowledged that these documents were well-structured from a technical point of view, they clearly intended to protect water resources for hydroelectric purposes and, in some cases, agricultural use (Pato, 2013). From 1919 onward, but particularly in the 1940s, several revisions were made to the legal regime governing water resources, most of which addressed the need for mechanisms to promote quality. However, they did not have any practical effect (Veiga da Cunha et al., 1980).

3Until the 1960s, the use of water resources in Portugal was mostly concentrated on productive activities, such as power generation and irrigation, essentially run by central administration (Schmidt and Ferreira, 2014). Concessions were made to the major hydroelectric companies (Cávado and Zêzere, 1945, DOURO 1953), and hydroelectric and hydro-agricultural production increased (APA, 2015). Thus, we can talk of a “water paradigm” which shaped the development of public water policy in Portugal throughout the 20th century. It is characterized by three main features: water regarded primarily as an economic resource; the infrastructural view and the technical-scientific predominance of hydraulics; the secondary nature of sanitary policies and environmental policies as relevant domains in public water policies in Portugal (Pato, 2013).

4Changes to this model only took place after 1975, as the structural rationale gradually gave way to social and environmental concerns (Soares, 2016). The beginning of the democratic regime in 1974 brought the issue to light and attempts were made to find solutions. Policies became more focused on the social dimension, such as improving the standard of living, fighting social inequalities, and preventing public health risks (Schmidt, Saraiva and Pato, 2012). However, devising a new national water policy framework in keeping with social and environmental needs faced a number of obstacles, related to the political instability of the revolutionary period and the lack of an organizational culture in the institutions linked to the water sector. Still, despite these limitations and flaws, the basis was launched for a policy primarily aimed at the study and application of the technical, legal and economic measures required to optimize the management of national water resources. These included the rationalization of their use, the review of their governing legal framework, and the protection of national water resources (Pato, 2007).

2 - The Paths to a Modern Policy

5Following Portugal’s entry into the European Union (EU) in 1986, water policy gradually shifted to concerns with the environment, since new political, institutional and normative environmental demands had to be taken into consideration (Schmidt and Ferreira, 2014). The Ministry for Spatial Planning and Management was founded, bringing decisive changes in the transition from the water paradigm to the environmental paradigm in Portugal (Pato, 2007). G. Henriques (1983) defined this “rational model” based on the socioeconomic context and, consequently, on the binominals quantity/economy and quality/environmental impact (Costa, 2008). The author then contended that management in Portugal was devised around two principles:

  • The river basin as an essentially administrative management unit, centralized and relatively insulated, in which the principles of cooperation, participation and subsidiarity are highly inconsistent and diffuse;

  • A hierarchy of uses and applications centered on primary uses, not recognizing those directly related with the ecological dimension (Henriques, 1984).

6In 1990, Decree-Law No. 79/90 of 2nd March established for the first time a functional connection between the State’s regime of public water assets and the institutional framework for public water policies on which it should be executed. However, it was ultimately no more than a failed attempt to reform the sector’s administration, since the institutional framework devised was not implemented (Barraqué, 1995; Costa, 2008; Pato, 2007). The institutional and economic dimensions were embodied in different water management regulations and, to some extent, their level of execution. Together with the complex organizational systems, an immense web of problematic relations was woven among the several levels of responsibility in water-resource planning (Espirito Santo and Costa, 1983; Costa, 2008; Schmidt, Nave and Pato, 2004). A complex range of factors arose that favored the state of entropy in which water management had become immersed, resulting from a lack of execution of water laws and frailties in terms of licensing and supervision. The institutional model was unsuited to the needs of water resources management because it lacked an approach at the level of the river basin, an integrating water law, and the participation of civil society (Costa, 2008).

7In 1993, Decree-Law No. 187/93 of 24th May created the Water Institute and five Regional Directorates for the Environment and Natural Resources. These were non-specialized regional bodies from the sectoral perspective, with authority over the administrative regions (MAOTDR, 2008). Consequently, a number of fundamental conditions had been created to define a sound water management policy. However, the lack of a National Plan for water resources, as well as an appropriate structure and modern legislation that could regulate the planning process, meant it was difficult to achieve (Lopes et al., 2012; Pato, 2007; Soares, 2016; Schmidt and Ferreira, 2014).

2.1 - Decree-Law No. 45/94: An Integrated Approach to Water Policy in Portugal

8The transition to an integrated water policy in Portugal was a slow and complex process, which only became established with the Decree-Law No. 45/94, passed on February 22, 1994 (Pato, 2007; Soares, 2016). It was followed in 1995 by the introduction of the National Water Plan and River Basin Plans, and the founding of the National Water Resources Information System (SNIRH) by the Water Institute (INAG). The National Water Board was also founded at the time, as an advisory body charged with examining water plans and projects, contributing to the establishment of strategic options in sustainable resource management (MAOTDR, 2008). Decree-Law No. 45/94 also served to establish the river basin plans as limiting instruments to administrative discretion in acts of management. This aspect is all the more important when public administration has, like the Portuguese, the privilege of enforcement and the presumption of legality (APA, 2015). It represented an attempt to create an integrated model, embodying decentralized and participative water management and planning in Portugal (Zucco and Costa, 2015a). It was further reinforced by Decree-Law No. 46/94, of February 22, which strengthened licensing powers, and Decree-Law No. 47/94, also passed on February 22, which intended to establish an economic-financial regime and implement polluter-pays and user-pays principles.

9This model, anchored in a series of legal diplomas, had its merit and value, having achieved remarkable results (Brito et al., 2008) at several levels: (i) territorial: aimed at integrated solutions for problems at the river basin or mainland level, considered globally; (ii) multiple goals: harmonizing several dimensions of regional and national development, social well-being, intra- and intergenerational equality, conservation of natural resources and safeguarding of natural and landscape heritage; (iii) multiple purposes: considering the possibility of attending to and satisfying the water needs of several user sectors (Serra, 2000). However, it was not able to overcome a number of ensuing constraints (Brito et al., 2008; Saraiva et al, 2006):

  • Difficulties in integrating water policies with spatial planning policies;

  • Reduced capacity to respond to requests for licensing from water users;

  • Lack of an adequate human resource management system;

  • Reduced efficiency in applying a penalty system;

  • High number of intervening administrative agents in water management;

  • A culture of reduced participation in decisions, taken without the direct involvement of the interested parties;

  • Information deficiencies in terms of services and infrastructure.

10Between 2000 and 2005, water policy was mostly centered on better understanding Portugal’s water ecosystems and their human surroundings (Schmidt and Ferreira, 2014).

2.2 - The Importance of the European Framework: The Water Framework Directive

11In December 2000, Directive 2000/60/CE came into force, the Water Framework Directive (WFD), concluded in June that year at the end of the Portuguese Presidency of the European Union. The WFD comprises a framework for the development of integrated policies aimed at protecting and improving water resources by the Member-States, applying the principle of subsidiarity (Foleto et al., 2015; Henriques, 2004; Meier, Zucco and Costa, 2015; Soares, 2016). The approval of the WFD marked a profound shift in Portugal’s water policies, which can be understood as a response to the continuous growth of urban areas, the introduction of a private sector in water resources management, and an increased concern with the environment (Kaika, 2003).

12For Portugal, the Water Framework Directive represented a challenge and an opportunity for the modernization of the water resources management systems (Zucco and Costa, 2013). However, apart from the need to adapt the WFD to domestic law, as well as national water policies to its basic principles, there was a need for profound reform of Portugal’s public water policy. Not only was it much older than the WFD, but also embedded in the legislative, institutional, and operational levels (Pato, 2007).

13In 2000, the government approved river basin plans for Portugal’s international rivers (Minho, Douro, Tagus and Guadiana), thus introducing a new sectoral planning instrument for water resources. This measure represented an important step towards a more modern, dynamic and appropriate model of river basin management (Magalhães et al., 2014). Subsequently, the government approved all the river basin plans (RBP) for the national rivers (Lima, Cávado, Ave, Leça, Vouga, Mondego, Lis, Sado, Mira, the Algarve and Oeste waterways, figure 1), looking to implement the above-mentioned global planning strategy and gain approval of the National Water Plan.

Figure 1 ‑ Portuguese river basins

Figure 1 ‑ Portuguese river basins

14Despite the acknowledged limitations and failures, the RBPs were an important step in compiling and consolidating a stock of basic information. They were also essential in formulating cohesive and indispensable strategies aimed at the integrated management of water resources and their corresponding water ecosystems (Zucco and Costa, 2015a). However, their material implementation was far from that envisioned due to operational factors, such as weak harmonization with other spatial planning instruments, a superficial approach through programs of measures, and deficiencies in the monitoring and supervision systems. Portuguese territorial planning is based on a static model, with low adaptation capacity to legal water resources management tools available (Table I).

Table 1 – Portuguese territorial planning instruments

Table 1 – Portuguese territorial planning instruments

Source: MAOTDR, 2009.

15This model is based on the principles of hierarchy - compatibility and conformity and admission of its flexibility - and of articulation - reciprocal compatibility between plans that are not linked by the hierarchy, translating into the prohibition of coexistence of plans with contradictory dispositions. However, the disarticulation in the territorial management system, namely in the cooperation between municipalities and between these and the other levels of territorial administration, with respect to water resources (OLIVEIRA, 2011), is notorious.

16Despite these constraints, the RBPs led to a broader understanding of Portugal’s river basins, and comprised an important basis for the new cycle in planning that was implemented with the WFD.

2.3 - The National Water Plan and Planning Challenges

17The National Water Plan (NWP), approved under Decree-Law No. 112/2002 of 17th April, establishes the major principles and options that should guide public water policy, as well as guidelines for the RBPs and other planning instruments (Almeida, 2013; Magalhães et al., 2014; Soares, 2016). The NWP comprises an analysis of the main problems, a diagnosis and hierarchy of the threats and capabilities, the definition of specific goals and their connection to other related public policies, particularly in the area of social, economic, and environmental development. It also includes an overview of measures and actions aimed at achieving the scheduled goals and investment programs, and the promotion and evaluation model of its application. It is defined as a strategic and programmatic framework that, together with the RBPs, envisages the development of water resources planning at the beginning of the 21st century (Almeida, 2013). The NWP, rooted in key elements of the RBPs, establishes the national priorities for water policy (Poças Martins and Godinho, 2016; SOARES, 2016). It also aims to restructure the normative and institutional water resources system and, as an instrumental factor, to achieve a cohesive and efficient water resources policy. Despite the urgency to execute these instruments, the NWP was published four years later than planned; and the RBPs were only published between December 2001 and March 2002, five to six years later than scheduled. Apart from these problems, there were also delays in implementing the plans, a lack of decentralized administrative units which could serve to mediate the National Water Institute’s (NWI) interventions at regional level, and deficient information and monitoring systems for national water resources. Problems related with the daily management of the river basins also persisted (Pato, 2007). Despite these many delays in terms of the initial scheduling foreseen, the first exercise in water resources planning faced a number of new, pertinent questions, such as integrating environmental issues in planning (Poças Martins and Godinho, 2016).

2.4 A Water Law almost a Century Later

18The period between 2005 and 2010 was marked by the primacy of sustainability, after the Water Law was passed (Decree No. 58/2005, on 29th December). It transposes the WFD to national legislation and adopts the River Basin Management Plans (RBMP), the National Water Plan (NWP), and the Specific Water Management Plans (SWMP) as its major planning instruments (Schmidt and Ferreira, 2014; Zucco and Costa, 2015a). In 2005, the Portuguese Parliament passed the new Water Law (WL), establishing key measures to protect water resources and water ecosystems within a cohesive framework, which encompasses, furthermore, spatial planning, quantitative aspects of water, and associated extreme events (APA, 2015; Júnior and Berezuk, 2012; Magalhães et al., 2014; MAOTDR, 2009; Meier, Costa and Basso, 2015; Pato, 2007; Poças Martins and Godinho, 2016; Soares, 2016). Conceptually, the WL establishes the protection and prevention measures for water ecosystems, as well as for land ecosystems and the wet zones on which they depend, as a fundamental goal of national water resources management. It has thus introduced the concept of ecological state/potential as an “expression of the structural and functional quality of water ecosystems”, which now plays an essential role in the evaluation of water masses and the environmental goals established (MAOTDR, 2009).

19The new management model meant Portugal had to establish new planning instruments (the RBMPs), as well as update its legislation on water resources (Soares, 2016). The RBMPs are sectoral plans as defined in the Legal Framework for Spatial Planning and Management and, concurrently, water planning and management instruments (Magalhães et al., 2014). The RBMPs are, under the terms of the law, linked to the public bodies and are subject to environmental evaluation, public participation and discussion. They are water planning instruments intended to serve as the basis for the management, protection, and environmental, social and economic development of water resources.

20The RBMPs, instituted in the WFD and the WL, were adopted on March 22, 2013, following a resolution from the Council of Ministers and communicated to the European Commission in September 2013. These plans correspond to the first planning cycle in Portugal, in force for the period defined in the WFD between 2009 and 2015. Like the RBPs before them, the investment associated to the urban water cycle represented the majority of the total investment planned in the first RBMPs (Poças Martins and Godinho, 2016). The second cycle began on December 22, 2012, and is intended to prepare the RBMPs in force between 2016 and 2021.

21One of the central aspects of the Water Law refers to environmental goals for surface water catchments, implemented through programs of measures specified in river basin management plans (MAOTDR, 2009). In economic and financial terms, the law establishes the internalization of costs for any activity that may cause a negative impact on the qualitative and quantitative state of water bodies, as well as the application of polluter-pays and user-pays principles (Pato, 2007).

22As an example, we can point to the Integrated De-pollution System of Vale do Ave (SIDVA), located in the north-west of Portugal. SIDVA integrates a network of collectors / interceptors, consisting of three drainage fronts, five treatment stations and more than 120 km of collectors, along the main water courses of the River Ave, in a densely occupied area by urban and industry uses, with the predominance of the textile sector. The regional solution was developed based on the following assumptions:

  • Solution defined at the river basin scale (1450 km2) and not according to administrative limits;

  • Joint treatment of domestic and industrial effluents;

  • Implementation of the solution in several phases;

  • Demanding purification in each treatment infrastructure in order to recover the water quality of the basin;

  • Tertiary treatment with removal of the color produced by textile industry;

  • Creation of Wastewater Discharge Regulation and tariffs that considered the polluter - payer principle.

23Decree 27286/2004 (2nd series) of December 30 determined that the companies located in the Ave Basin had to comply with the limits set for the multi-municipal system. The legislation was clear: either the companies built their own wastewater treatment plants, or adhere, paying, to the SIDVA.

24On this obligation, the regulation on the discharge of industrial waste water (AMAVE, 1998) refers, in Article 2, to the need to

distribute with equity all users, including industrialists, investments in fixed capital and associated with the implementation and operation of the Integrated De-pollution System of Vale do Ave.

25In institutional terms, the bodies in charge of ensuring the application of the Water Law are the Water Institute, as the National Water Authority, and the River Basin District Administrations (RBDA), decentralized agencies charged with planning, licensing, supervision, monitoring, and infrastructure management of the river basins under their authority.

26The NWP has been redefined in the WL, as a strategic plan which defines the major options of the national water policy. It sets out to identify the main national problems and the goals of the water user sectors, which should then be transposed to the river basin district through the RBMPs (Poças Martins and Godinho, 2016). The NWP is now being revised, intended to define the major strategic options of the national water policy. These are to be applied through river basin management plans (RBMP) for the 2016-2021 period and their associated programs of measures. This review also highlights the major prospective lines of that policy for the 2022-2027 period, which corresponds to the WFD’s third planning cycle.

27At the beginning of a new political cycle in 2011, the recently elected government reorganized the water and sanitation services. The organic law of the new Ministry of Agriculture, Sea, Environment and Spatial Planning was passed, and changes were made to the WL (DL No. 130/2012, of 22nd June). The River Basin District Administrations (RBDAs) lost autonomy, as they were integrated into the Portuguese Environment Agency (PEA), in which the WI was also integrated (Schmidt and Ferreira, 2014). Generally speaking, the new water authority in Portugal has many duties in different fields linked to environmental management. It is, however, still early to evaluate the effectiveness and consequences of this new organic structure.

3 - Perspectives and Challenges

3.1 The Albufeira Convention: Perspectives for Shared Cooperation and Management

28Spain and Portugal share five river basins: Minho, Lima, Douro, Tagus, and Guadiana. The total area of these basins is 268.500 km2 (table 2), which represents about 45% of the Iberian Peninsula, and corresponds to 64% and 42% of mainland Portugal and Spain, respectively (Barreira, 2007).

Table 2 ‑ Shared basins between Portugal and Spain

Table 2 ‑ Shared basins between Portugal and Spain

Source: Soares and Costa, 2013.

29Portuguese-Spanish relations regarding common river use have been established through several bilateral legal instruments, since the Treaty of Limits signed between Portugal and Spain in 1864. Particularly relevant among the several existing agreements are those of 1927 and 1964, intended to regulate the hydroelectric power generation of the Douro River and its tributaries; and the 1968 agreement, aimed at regulating the use and hydroelectric power generated on the international sections of the rivers Minho, Lima, Tagus, Guadiana, Chança and their tributaries (APA, 2015; Barreira, 2007; Henriques, 2004; Soares, 2016).

30These treaties were later complemented, in their territorial scope (broadening to the entire basin and its river banks) and material range (the protection of water bodies and not just their use) by the Convention on Cooperation for the Protection and Sustainable Use of Portuguese-Spanish River Basins, signed in 1998 (Albufeira Convention) (APA, 2015; Soares, 2016; Soares and Costa, 2013). At the same time, the Convention’s Application and Development Commission was also created.

31The Albufeira Convention came into force in January 2000 and is a key instrument in regulating the relations between Portugal and Spain with regard to shared river basins (Barreira, 2007; EEA, 2012; Henriques, 2004; Poças Martins and Godinho, 2016; UN, 2011; Soares and Costa, 2013). The normative solutions adopted in the Convention are based on the 1992 Helsinki Convention and on Community law which obliges both States, namely through the WFD. The Albufeira Convention also establishes a cooperation framework for mutual assistance in extreme situations like flooding, droughts, and accidental pollution, in the mutual recognition of each State’s rights in the sustainable water use of these river basins in their national territory (Barreira, 2007; Henriques, 2004).

32The cooperation framework instituted by the Convention establishes the following domains (APA, 2015; Barreira, 2007; EEA, 2012; Henriques, 2004; Nesheim et al., 2010; Soares, 2016):

  • Systematic exchange of information on plans and projects for new water uses and programs of measures to improve and protect the quality of the water bodies;

  • Coordination of water management;

  • Transboundary impact evaluation of new projects in the shard river basins;

  • Conducting joint studies on the transboundary water bodies;

  • Coordination of participation in Community and international programs of common interest.

33Under Article 31 of the Albufeira Convention, which establishes amendments to the agreement by both parties, an agreement to review the convention was approved in 2008. This review considered the need to redefine the criteria to determine the water flow regime of the Portuguese-Spanish river basins (EEA, 2012; Soares, 2016; Soares and Costa, 2013).

3.2 - Climate Change: Water Resources and Adaptation Strategies

34In alignment with global concerns and European policy, Portugal developed the National Strategy for Adaptation to Climate Change (NSACC; Resolution of the Council of Ministers No. 24/2010), in which water resources are highlighted as a strategic sector. Hence, the NWP includes the topic “climate change”, its impacts and the risk to water resources, as a priority for analysis (APA, 2015; Lopes et al., 2012). At the level of risks resulting from climate change, a number of specific aspects for mainland Portugal should be highlighted, such as the decrease in river flow from the Iberian rivers and the water retention in transboundary river basins in Spain, which can lead to the reduction of water availability in Portugal.

35In Portugal, the NSACC related to Water Resources (NSACC-WR) is currently under discussion and is centered on three major lines of debate:

  • Reduction of the exposure of systems and activities to climate phenomena;

  • Increase in the robustness and resilience of sectors exposed to climate phenomena;

  • Deepening of knowledge on climate change impact evaluation and the viability of potential strategies to adapt.

36A well-defined strategy in the water sector, the preparation and implementation of the RBMPs, and the growing participation of society in efficient water management and use are positive and decisive factors in the evolution of this critical resource. Water resources are one of the most difficult variables to predict in terms of climate change (APA, 2015; Lopes et al., 2012). The definition of a NSACC-WR is intended to reduce vulnerability to water-related impacts, in a sustainable manner, from a technical, economic, environmental, and social point of view. To achieve this goal, climate change is part of every moment of the planning and management processes, and is included in national, regional, local, and institutional water policies. In line with these guidelines and concerns, the EU has issued several recommendations for the second planning cycle of the RBMPs, highlighting components related to adaptation to climate change. These include a deeper analysis of climate change effects on the state of water bodies, at the limit and boundaries of sustainability in terms of uses, the measures required to increase resilience, and the capacity to adapt to climate change (APA, 2015; Lopes et al., 2012).


37It is interesting to note that, more than 20 years ago, the Decree-Law No. 45/94 expressed in its preface: “Planning is of the utmost importance. A sustained abundance of water does not exist, associated with enormous spatial and temporal irregularity, which means that rigorous management is required, as well as heavy investments in infrastructure.” This statement emphasizes the complexity of the water issue in Portugal, resulting particularly from its Mediterranean climate, the upstream limitations of the large river basins shared with Spain, and the limitations resulting from administrative division and spatial planning. Furthermore, new risks and emerging challenges are increasing, especially those associated with extreme water phenomena, the frailty of coastal and river bank zones and, no less troubling, the vulnerability of water sources in times of social and political conflicts (Brito et al., 2008; MAOTDR, 2008). It is thus predictable that issues related to water resources will remain on the political agendas and in the media, not only with regard to the environment but also in the areas of social and economic development, security, quality of life, agriculture, industry, energy and tourism (Poças Martins and Godinho, 2016).

38Progress in the national water policy is recognized as a result of the implementation of the Water Framework Directive, with a general improvement in environmental indicators and the integration of the various actors in the planning process (SCHMIDT and FERREIRA, 2014). However, the management of water resources continues to denote a difficult versatility in the face of the very intense bureaucratic and political context in Portugal. Delays in the implementation of deadlines point to an effect rather than a cause, due to the lack of monitoring and consequent data and information from river basins that are generally insufficient (JÚNIOT and BEREZUK, 2012).The WFD, with its guidelines, incentives and penalties, will continue to be the driving force of a long, demanding process of change which should lead all water bodies in the European Union to improve in quality. Portugal has developed efforts to improve knowledge of its water resources, guaranteeing the application of suitable actions and the ability to adapt responses to the problems to which it is particularly vulnerable (Poças Martins and Godinho, 2016).

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1 ‑ Portuguese river basins
File image/jpeg, 656k
Title Table 1 – Portuguese territorial planning instruments
Credits Source: MAOTDR, 2009.
File image/jpeg, 84k
Title Table 2 ‑ Shared basins between Portugal and Spain
Credits Source: Soares and Costa, 2013.
File image/jpeg, 24k
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Electronic reference

Francisco da Silva Costa, « Water policy(ies) in Portugal », Méditerranée [Online], 130 | 2018, Online since 08 November 2018, connection on 16 October 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/mediterranee.10078

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About the author

Francisco da Silva Costa

Geography Department and Center of Studies in Geography and Spatial Planning of the University of Minho, 4600 Guimarães,

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