No end in sight for killer Mediterranean heatwave

People are dying in the 400 heat, forest fires are taking their toll on property and water shortages are acute. By Charles Charalambous
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BRITISH HOLIDAYMAKERS making their annual foray to the Mediterranean in search of the sun are getting more than they bargained for this year. Temperatures have soared above 40C at a swathe of popular destinations, causing some to rethink their holiday plans. According to one sun-stricken tourist, the only time it was safe to hit the beach was at night.

Forecasts of continued hot weather have prompted some of the one million Britons who travel to Cyprus each year to cancel their bookings. "All the talk back in England was about how many people had died and whether it was safe to come to Cyprus," said an 18-year-old Hampstead hairdresser, Lewis Alexander. "Some of my clients even cancelled their holiday."

Since the start of August, Cyprus has witnessed record-breaking temperatures, consistently reaching 43C in the shade, leading to the deaths of 59 elderly Cypriots and more than 4,000 others seeking hospital treatment. Last week fires got out of control in the intense heat, destroying 14 homes at British bases on the island, including that of the British commander in Cyprus, Major General Angus Ramsay.

On the Greek mainland, this summer has been described as the worst ever for forest fires. More than 2,800 were reported in July alone, compared with 3,100 from April to October last year. Apart from the heat, the Greek authorities say one of the prime causes of the fires is arson by property owners who want to clear sites for development. The government is offering rewards of between 5m and 20m drachmas (pounds 10,000-pounds 40,000) for information leading to the arrest of an arsonist responsible for any wildfire since 1 July, and state security agencies are investigating.

In France, 20 cities have issued pollution alerts prompted by the hot weather, with police in Paris this week urging motorists to stay home. And in wine-growing areas, 40-degree days are withering the grapes on south-facing slopes.

While no British holidaymakers have been reported among the victims of the weather in Cyprus, the worst-hit destination, travel representatives are worried about the foolhardy who soak up the midday sun, despite repeated health warnings by Cypriot authorities.

"They don't seem to have a problem with the heat, despite the high temperatures," said a tour representative in the resort of Ayia Napa. "They are down the beach from morning to mid-afternoon with their children and don't seem concerned about the consequences."

The British High Commission in Nicosia said it would not issue any special warning for holidaymakers. "Although the figure for local deaths is horrendous, there are no British tourists who have been reported as suffering from heat-related symptoms," said a spokesman, Piers Cazalet. Since Wednesday temperatures have dipped to around 38C, but the heat is expected to become more intense again this weekend.

The Martyn family from Berkshire had mixed feelings about the weather. Since they had been living in Saudi Arabia, the heat was nothing unusual, and they were not looking forward to grey days on their return to Britain. "I get grumpy when I see clouds for days on end, so I quite enjoy the sunny weather," said Tony Martyn, 44.

His wife Pauline was concerned about applying the appropriate sun-factor lotion to their children. "I use 30 on their faces and a slightly lower factor for the rest of the body," she said, observing that many holidaymakers were demonstrating less foresight. "We've seen a lot of tourists walking around looking a very bright lobster colour."

While the Brits work on their sunburn, Cypriots worry about the degree to which the heat has diminished water resources, with dam capacity down to 10 per cent. The government said it will run out of water if it doesn't rain by the end of the year, a serious threat to the tourism-driven economy.

However, the heatwave could have a silver lining for wine drinkers, albeit next year. Although the weather has withered grapes on a fifth of vines in Bordeaux, vineyard owners hope there could be benefits. Hot summers such as 1976 are remembered for producing fine vintages.