By Andrei Khalip
LISBON (Reuters) - After Portugal's driest February in 80 years, farmers are praying for a miracle as drought ravages pastures and sparks forest fires, exacerbating the country's economic crisis.
Worse still, official forecasters expect the freak weather pattern to prevail at least through the end of March, which would worsen a drought now classified as severe and extreme throughout mainland Portugal.
Aside from the yet-unassessed impact on trade and GDP, the situation is likely to further strain limited financial resources just as Portugal is cutting spending to meet the tough terms of its 78-billion euro bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
The country's last major drought in 2005 cost the country almost 300 million euros ($400 million).
In the parched southern Alentejo region - the country's poorest - villagers in several places are already holding Novenas, acts of religious devotion at which prayers are recited and sung for nine nights in a row to obtain divine intervention.
Pedro Mestre, a teacher in the village of Sete, is one of those who have been praying and singing the Novena alongside local farmers.
"Dry, cold weather at night and heat during the day destroy the crops - grain, tomatoes, vines, orchards. People become desperate and resort to things they believe can bring relief."
Their only reward was a light drizzle on Thursday, not even enough to humidify the soil. The sun shone again on Friday.
"The rain just sprinkled the surface, the Novena goes on," said Mestre. "Also, there are no pastures for the cattle anymore due to the drought, while normally they last till April. If it continues this way cattle will start dying."
The National Agriculture Confederation, a farming union, last month criticized the government for "underestimating the seriousness of the situation and not outlining extraordinary measures" to help farmers who have to pay more for irrigation and animal fodder.
"There are already direct losses with winter crops compromised, a shortage of pastures for cattle, orchards with poor flowering, olive groves are affected, the levels of water in the soil are low," it said.
The government has since freed farmers who have borrowed money from interest payments for a year, set up a task force to follow the drought and is considering measures such as a request for European Commission help.
The task force has identified the shortage of natural pastures as the main problem, followed by rising fodder prices and worsening irrigation needs. It added that areas under permanent crops were not yet in danger.
Agriculture Minister Assuncao Cristas said it was not yet time to panic.
"It's premature to evaluate losses in quantitative terms because rains could start and then the situation won't be that serious," she told Reuters.
Experts say that despite a super-dry February, this year's drought is not yet as bad as that in 2005, when two years of parched conditions combined to create Portugal's worst drought in 60 years.
Nevertheless, it is worrying for a sector that accounts for about 3 percent of national output.
"If the absence of rain continues, it can accumulate and gain strength," said Francisco de Castro Rego, a professor at Lisbon's Superior School of Agronomy.
"There have already been around 200 forest fires on some days, which is more typical of summer. They don't get too huge as there is still moisture from the day-night temperature shift, but that effect will disappear when temperatures get higher."
He said that while enough rain before the summer heat could still prevent massive forest fires, "for agriculture there has already been some irreversible damage done."
The 2005 drought contributed to a 45 percent slump in grain output, a 20 percent fall in wine production and a fruit harvest 13 percent smaller than the year before.
Agricultural revenues shrank 8 percent that year and the trade deficit swelled as Portugal imported fossil fuels to substitute idle hydroelectric power plants.
2005 was also the second-worst year on record for forest fires, destroying nearly 340,000 hectares - about the size of the Island of Majorca. ($1 = 0.7573 euros)
(Additional reporting by Jose Ribeiro; Editing by Ben Harding)