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Agua é Vida - A Water Pilgrimage in Portugal

Updated: Oct 7, 2020

Breathe in, two steps. Breathe out, two steps. Breath in twice two steps, long breath out, three. I watch my feet move, and my heart beat moving the blood through my body. Look up, I remind myself. Look out. When I see the burned earth, I start to smell it even though the fires were months ago. The spines of trees still stand and the ground is black, yet a few teal green plants sprinkle the landscape. Eucalyptus love fire, and fire loves them. Their seeds wait patiently in the ground waiting for the heat to open them up and to move into the space their elders used to be. I think to myself that these trees shouldn’t be here anyway… But they burn, and they return. I appreciate their resilience and in the next moment, my heart hurts to see the land like this. Keep walking. Keep growing. Keep grieving. Breath in, two steps. Breath out, two steps.

My group and I arrive to an arm of the Santa Clara Reservoir and walk down a dirt road after a few hours on pavement. Two herons take flight, screeching and echoing into the sparse hillsides that hold the water. In Celtic mythology, the heron appears to remind the people of what happened to the water. It is a bird that represents regeneration of life and the power of observation and patience. A good guide for our journey to remind us of what we are walking with.

It is an apocalyptic scene, water held in a space where its flow is controlled. A ruin floats in the center of the water, the tops of bare trees extend out of the surface, a graveyard of trees and villages that used to be. Yet I am pulled to play in the water. Everyone drops their bags and strips to jump in, and for a moment there is joy and relief in all of us, and I imagine the water has some joy from it too.

We are a group of international students from 13 countries and co-workers of Tamera, a peace and environmental research and education center located in the municipality of Odemira. Our ages range from 24-46 and we come from Mexico, Brazil, Israel-Palestine, Germany and the United States, to name a few, and we have been living and studying together for 3-6 months in Tamera. For two weeks in October 2019, we walked the Mira watershed from Serro da Bica to the ocean and back up the river again to return to Tamera on a pilgrimage. Pilgrimage, an ancient form of prayer and action, is a word with a complex history that is being reclaimed in these modern times to support the spirit of prayerful political activism through bearing witness and moving lightly on the land. Our intention was to get to know the complexity and character of this watershed and we saw that it is a microcosm of the global situation of water and of humanity.

We are not alone with this intention. There is a global movement calling for the protection and restoration of the healthy waters of our planet. Water protectors of Standing Rock. Walking Water pilgrimages through California to bear witness to the extreme changes of the landscape. The Nibi (water) Walks organized by Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, what we now know of as Canada and the United States. Run4Salmon, a 300-mile trek honoring the journey of the Chinook Salmon with the intention to raise awareness, restore the ancient waterways, and the population of this keystone species. All of these actions hold water at the center because water is life. We are in a moment of crisis where water everywhere is at risk. From disruption of natural water cycles to contamination, we all affect and are impacted by this crisis. Without healthy water, we cannot survive as a species, for we are water.

“Surrender to the water, Revelation through the water.

Humble and home, never alone, forever I am with you.

Forever I walk with you.”

-Justine Epstein, Water Offering Song-

Global Problem, Local Scale

We arrive to the Santa Clara Reservoir on October 1st, Portugal’s National Water Day. A report from Portugal Nature Association (ANP) is released that states “healthy aquatic ecosystems are the best allies to cope with rising temperatures and less rainfall, so preserving them should be a priority”. It also says that the structural aspects and movement of water in the south of the country makes the drought situation especially dire. We happen to arrive to the Barragem Santa Clara on this day, a perfect example in which to observe the global water problem at a local scale. One can see the low water levels demonstrating the drought situation in the region and how the structure of a dam can change the whole landscape.

Unfortunately, before the dam was built, there weren't any ecological impact studies that would show us data about how the Mira flowed, how culture or local economy would be impacted, or the animal habitats that would be changed. We do know that the soil of the region is not very permeable given the geology, and it has also been degraded over time through farming practices and deforestation over hundreds, if not thousands of years. It also rains less and less every year, with more water intensive agriculture entering the region that are in demand of the waters from the Santa Clara Reservoir.

Sergio Maraschin, an expert geologist and water activist, also questions the role of the dam in an increasingly risky climate situation. He urges the group to ask how the Association of Mira Beneficiaries, the entity of people and associations that purchase water from the Santa Clara Reservoir, will cope with the changing reality of the water situation. I myself wonder, how does such an entity see themselves as socially responsible in the region? I think of Tamera and its work to become water autonomous through developing a water retention landscape, that it has its own water for drinking and for its agriculture but many in the region rely on the Santa Clara Reservoir.

When we are at the dam, we meet with Carla Lucio, the technical supervisor from the ABM (Association of Mira Beneficiaries), and I ask: “What happens in the worst case scenario if there is limited water? Who is prioritized? Who gets shut off first?” I can’t believe I am asking this question and that she takes it seriously. I am relieved when she shares that villages will receive water first, then farmers who have permanent crops. The farmers who are outside of the region that receive water would lose access first, and then the amount that goes to the beneficiaries would be drastically limited. She also shares that, “If it doesn’t rain in the next three to six months, then we would probably communicate that the water will be limited next year. The point we are concerned about is to managing this resource well.”

When I ask her about the potential for ecological restoration around the dam, she points out the “forested” area and that vegetation has always grown in the area but has been mismanaged. Jochen Baumgaertner, an ecologist and co-worker of Tamera, shares his opinion: “Ecologically, some vegetation that happens to be growing around the reservoir does not mean it is a healthy ecosystem or a forest. The ABM’s task is to manage the reservoir, dam and the distribution of this water, and for this it also needs to be full. Large scale ecological restoration carries the short term “risk“ that water would actually go back into the land, aquifers and into an organic flow, instead of filling the reservoir directly through surface run-off. The ecological situation that we observe around is an expression of current capitalistic, short term goal oriented system which wants to be changed.”

We learn that there is an EU law to support ecological restoration in the face of climate change which states that dams are required to release a certain amount of water into the system for ecological input. When another walker asks Ms. Lucio about this law, she says that "The amount of water release per year to the river after the dam is more than enough to meet this requirement." Yet, as pilgrims following the Mira River, we found ourselves walking near canals that are controlled, and along a “river” that no longer flows. I look around and see we are looking at each other, and I know that all of us are thinking that it isn’t enough.

Water is a natural element that is a source of all life, a common good turned into a monetized product through its capture and distribution. As water becomes increasingly scarce due to climate change, pollution, and privatization, there will be more reservoirs that bury what used to be, storing the most precious resource for life to go on, controlled by a certain few. This region is one in which the climate crisis isn’t on its way… it is already here.

The next day we arrive to Santa Clara-a-Velha and in the evening we go into the village center where the mayor and elders wait for us. We present a few songs and we ask what life was like before the dam. Odette, a small woman in long black skirt with a veil, typical portuguese dress for women, stands in front of our group with a ukelele and a big smile. She sings a song and explains the story it carries about the water of the region. When I listen, I feel transported back into time. We are pilgrims traveling through a village, listening to the wisdom of the elders from the places we pass, sharing what we’ve seen along the way, and being welcome home in a new place. Odette’s songs and stories were medicine for our souls, and for the waters.

After the songs, others shared stories of life before, during, and after the dam. Both sides were visible; that people were grateful for the dam and what it provides and they were also saddened because with it, they lost a lot of tradition and community connection. This happens all over the world where dams go up and water is diverted, trapped into the walls of reservoirs and artificial structures. People lose access to water and they lose access to culture and community.

An “Amazing Promise” of the “American” Dream

When we arrived to Odemira, a few pilgrims from our group went out into the town to connect with the people of the city. One of our leading guides and organizer of the pilgrimage, Rabea Herzog, a water ecologist and community member of Tamera, met a few men from India who shared their story about coming to work in the greenhouses and monoculture farms. The men from India shared that eventually they were able to open their own shops in Odemira. One of the pilgrims shares her experience of migrating from Mexico to Canada to work in similar greenhouses. She recalls waking up at 2-3am in the morning, working 13 hours a day, living in bad conditions without clear water to drink or shower with so that she could make money for her life back home. Known as the “American Dream”, this system exploits people, land, waters in the name of the unsustainable ideal of capitalism.

Along our path to the ocean, we reach an almond farm where the landscape changes dramatically. It feels like a shock to go through somewhat vegetated and forest landscape to then find trees in straight lines and no other growth around. The group finds it heartbreakingly ironic that such a water intensive crop is growing in this region given the conditions of drought. Those of us from the United States share how in California, another region of the world that shares a similar climate and water scarcity, that the almond monocultures go on for miles and miles, and that 10% of California’s water goes to farming almonds. It is clear that the priority of monetizing crops trumps the reality of the water situation on a global level.

We find a canal that feeds water from the Santa Clara Reservoir to the almond farm and decide to partake in a bit of joyful “civil disobedience” by jumping into the canal for a swim, in solidarity with the water and with Extinction Rebellion who, on this day, launched two weeks of direct action for the climate. It didn’t matter if it was trapped in a canal or in a reservoir, but that we as humans could bring joy, play, and liberate it, if only for a moment, in a moment of love and solidarity for all the trapped waters of the world. By jumping into the water, we intended to communicate to the water that it is loved, that we enjoy it, that we wish it to be free to flow where it needs to go, and that no matter what, we witness it as an entity that is an important, crucial, and necessary one that humans must care for if we are to survive as humanity.

After we enjoy the water, we continue on our walk and encounter the greenhouses. Raspberries are growing in pots with a little amount of soil, fueled by two tubes of water and minerals, provided with nourishment as if they were patients in a hospital bed. There is no contact of these plants with the surrounding. They are real plants but the ecology is artificial.

Benjamin von Mendelssohn, our leading guide of the pilgrimage, along with Anne Bretschneider, another leading organizer of the pilgrimage, Beatriz Silva and Rui Braga, two translators for the group, approached one of the facilities together and made contact with a worker from “Amazing Promise”, a Spanish company. There is a restriction to what is mentioned by the workers, so we didn’t get a lot of information but they saw the shipping containers where the immigrants live, mostly people from Nepal, India, other south-east Asian countries.

We thought together about how we might change this dream when so many worldwide follow it. Our hope is to change the dream, a dream where we find happiness and fulfillment by being amongst humans in connection with the earth, in a spiritual connection to our planet and each other, and fulfilled in a way where we don’t have to leave our homes for abundance and opportunity.

A New Dream

Each morning, we wake up before sunrise to songs from fellow pilgrims and to damp sleeping bags. Then the rush to the breakfast line, prepared by the kitchen team. If it was a day where we had to walk up to 20kM, there was a feeling of panic in the air and the food ran out. On shorter walking days, there was still food left over in the line. I cut up a cucumber, paint bread with my favorite paste and put together a sandwich into a paper bag. I return to my sleeping place, change into my walking clothes, pack my bag, and gather with the others in a circle. Our guides give us a sentence, encouraging us to bear witness what we see: “Water is a living being.'' We walk off in the dark, greeting the misty air, and the morning creatures.

The day after we walked through the almond monocultures and past the greenhouses, we encounter a very special place. It is a private land that has been taken care of for generations and passed through family since the 1800’s, which is currently in the hands of a mature woman named Madalena. The garden we find there, she tells us, was started by her grandmother in the 1940’s out of pure love and passion. In her own way she was an architect, constructing irrigation channels long before the dam came, using stones to guide the water sourced from springs bubbling forth from the land. Many of us are brought to tears as we discover the flow of the water that led to a waterfall, near an old mill, to a cave and lush forestry with dark potent soil.

The cave seduces me. I crawl on my hands and feet to keep myself from slipping. Moist, dark, fertile. I can’t resist painting myself with the dark dripping soil and breathing in her scent. Watching the light come in slightly, I look up and see bats take flight, and settle again in their places. Breathing in again, I close my eyes and I feel myself inside the earth. Moist, dark, fertile… My senses creep and expand from the scent of soil, to hearing the drip of the water, seeing the way it reflects the light, my eyes adjusting to take more in, and I feel my insides breath deep and I feel rest - a deep relaxation settles in my system. When I come out, I rinse myself off in the waterfall and the youngest pilgrim of 4, Nara, is playing in the pool of water that collects there. I am brought to tears by the paradise I find myself in, both the land and amongst this traveling community of pilgrims.

When we gather as a group again, Bernd Mueller, a water specialist from Tamera walking with us for the day, shares his perception… How his doubts about it being an “artificial” landscape creep in and then he catches himself. What would it be to just perceive the beauty? To believe for a little longer that it is not a manipulation or an “artificial” nature park but really well tended land? To hear him speak like this is a reflection of how we have lost hope in regeneration and restoration of the earth, and yet, it is true that this land holds spring water and is fed by an aquifer. And this exists because there has been care and tending of the land for many generations. I wonder to myself how the whole Alentejo might look in a hundred years from now and for a moment, I imagine that it could be a lush jungle with water flowing freely throughout the land. And this hope comes from walking the land and seeing that there is still an intimacy and connection between humans and the land of the Alentejo. Whether the land has been abandoned and desertified or whether it is an oasis that humans tend, it is clear that the land needs the people to care for it.

After almost two weeks walking up to 20km a day through the Alentejo region, the tidal mouth of the Mira River widens to embrace an endless horizon that is the Atlantic Ocean. We approach in silence, our bare feet licked by the salty waves, filled with the memory of what we have witnessed: the grief and the praise, the pain and the beauty embodied in the lands and the peoples of this watershed — a microcosm of the big story on our water planet. As the sun drops low over the waves, we lay down our packs and together, holding hands, offer our bodies to the water. Each in our own way and together we give thanks for who we have become and all we have learned in surrendering ourselves to the flow of the Mira, releasing the prayers we have carried to the waves, imagining them rippling out across the waters to embrace the whole globe.

If we care about the water, about the climate and our ability to have a say in our most precious resource, we need to know the aspects of water flow in our region. From going out to walk watersheds, and to “know the flow”, we get to know the history and current realities of political structures, of economy, of culture, and also what the possibilities of a place are, and feel what has been lost. Witnessing the current reality of the Alentejo, in both its beauty and its degradation, challenges us to think in different ways and to decide for them. Tamera, a community of the Alentejo, is a global example for water retention landscapes in desertified areas. As students and as community builders, we realized that it isn’t just our community’s water we need to care for, but for the whole watershed including the people, history, political, and economic situation of this precious resource. Walking the waters of our region, wherever we are, is a necessary action that broadens our connection to the social and geographical reality with the people, land, and water that we share; and is especially crucial in these times of climate crisis. The more we walk, the more we will know how to act on behalf of the water, of life, of this planet. Join us.

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