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France Rations Water as Drought Takes Hold

Date: 12-Jul-05
Country: FRANCE
Author: David Evans

The French government expanded measures ranging from bans on car washing and filling swimming pools to curbs on crop irrigation to 50 of the country's 96 mainland departments.

Anyone breaking the law faces a 1,500 euro ($1,801) fine.

"The drought that France has witnessed since September has been reinforced by a heatwave at the end of June," said the environment ministry's drought bulletin, published on Monday.

"The drought is affecting a large part of the country."

In the tourist resorts of southern Spain and Portugal, where drought is the worst since records began in the 1940s, emergency wells are being drilled to cope with the summer demand surge.

In Portugal, 39 towns with about 22,000 inhabitants were getting water from tanker trucks at the end of June as reservoirs dried up, the Water Institute said. Another 15 towns with 25,000 people were on reduced supplies.

The environmental damage is huge -- fish are dying in dried up rivers and in one Spanish region, 80 million trees could die.

As temperatures across France began to rise again on Monday, the ministry warned of a high risk of forest fires and possible disruptions to domestic drinking water supplies.

Almost 10,000 people were evacuated from campsites in the south of France last week after a forest fire destroyed 1,000 hectares of pine trees near the resort of Frejus.

The dry weather has helped fuel a sharp increase in the number of forest fires in Portugal, and almost 400 firefighters were battling 25 blazes on Monday around the northern industrial city of Porto alone, the National Civil Protection Service said.

But French Environment Minister Nelly Olin said improvements in national water distribution meant there would not be a repeat of 1976, when the country experienced widespread shortages.

FARMERS HIT

Farmers are also warning of big losses. Crops in Spain and Portugal have more than halved, prompting the EU to agree to an unprecedented transfer of surplus grain from central Europe.

In Spain, farm unions have estimated losses at 1.8 billion euros and say some farmers may now leave the land altogether.

Drought was also cited as one factor behind Morocco slashing its growth forecast this year to 1.3 percent from 3.5 percent.

Spain and Morocco are spending millions to help farmers. Madrid has offered 750 million euros in subsidised loans and Rabat has put $350 million into debt relief and credit lines.

And in France, the key maize crop in the southwest is under threat. Wheat harvesting is already under way but maize, which also needs more irrigation, is not brought in until September.

"The high temperatures (in June), most intense in the southwest and east of France, have exacerbated the fragile situation concerning water resources in many regions," the maize growers' association AGPM said.

It said yields could drop by up to 30 percent or even more where irrigation was impossible. More rain was needed urgently.

But Olin ruled out a repeat of France's unpopular drought tax, imposed in 1976 to compensate farmers for losses, although she said she recognised the difficulties they faced.

"I understand their concerns. But I say to them that there is no solution other than partly turning off the irrigation taps," she said.

(Additional reporting by Lisbon and Madrid buros)

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