Farmers count the cost as waters recede : European Floods Disaster : Co ntinental Chaos

Paris (AP, Reuter) - Downstream from the Dutch flood drama, swollen rivers receded yesterday in France, Belgium and Germany. But for thousands of farmers and small busi- nesses the financial headaches have just begun.

The floods in north-western Europe, which have claimed sixteen lives in France, six in Belgium, three in Germany and one in the Netherlands, are likely to become the most expensive this century.

The main waterways through the Netherlands and Germany will probably stay closed to shipping for at least another week. The ban on commercial navigation has stranded 85 per cent of Europe's oil and dry bulk barge fleet, which has a capacity of 14 milliontonnes.

In France, water levels in Brittany were gradually easing off, especially in the worst-hit Ile-et-Vilaine department, and officials said that rivers should return to normal levels by Sunday if the recession continued.

In Germany, in Cologne, one of the worst affected areas, the Rhine was ebbing by the hour after cresting at three times its normal depth on Monday.

Governments in all four countries have started work on programmes to provide loans and assistance to speed the recovery. Belgium has budgeted Bfr1.8bn (£38m) for a special disaster fund. However, in France, farmers were already voicing worries that aid would be misdirected. "We fear the government's measures are aimed at the towns and will bypass the rural community," a spokesman for the French farmers union said.

Local authorities in the north have reported extensive damage to winter crops, feed supplies and farm buildings.

A French government spokesman, Philippe Douste-Blazy, said the cost of the floods to the state would be more than Fr1.5bn (£187m). Damage has occurred in 43 of France's 96 departments, and French insurers have estimated the cost to them at Fr2-3bn (£250m-£370m).

The French environment minister, Michel Barnier, said the government was prepared to spend Fr10bn (£1.25bn) over the next few years to help vulnerable communities minimise the impact of floods. He also called for wise land use, including a halt to construction in riverside flood zones.

In Germany, the economics minister, Gunter Rexrodt said after a cabinet meeting that the government would make available low-interest loans worth DM300m (£128m) to small and medium-sized businesses.

He said federal experts would meet in the few days to develop a broader programme, possibly for up to DM700m (£299m).

The Dutch transport minister, Annemarie Jouritsma, held Germany partly responsible for the Rhine overflowing for the second time in 13 months. "Part of the problem is that the flow of the Rhine has been changed through building work," she told German radio.