France's rivers run dry

Parched meadows and water shortages indicate France is already facing a summer drought. Meanwhile, its scientists are warning killer heatwaves will become the norm. By John Lichfield
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The Independent Online

Just west of Parthenay in the rolling grasslands of western France is a panorama that could be Pembrokeshire or the west of Ireland. Here, in the département of Deux-Sèvres, amid lush, green meadows, you find low hills, hedges, clumps of trees and granite outcrops. Except that, this summer, the meadows are not lush or green. They are a dusty and sickly yellow-grey. The meadow grasses and wild flowers have died back to their roots, as if scorched by a giant hair-dryer. They have been "grilled", in the word of a local sheep farmer, Jean-Louis Chamard, by a winter and spring with virtually no rain and a blazing early summer with temperatures reaching 35C (95F) day after day.

A little further north lies the Cebron reservoir, a lovely artificial lake that supplies the centre of the département with drinking water. It is normally two-thirds full now, and a breeding ground for two species of tern, which come to this sheltered spot from the shores of the Atlantic 100 miles to the west.

This year there are few terns. The lake has been reduced to a large, mud-rimmed pond. Despite severe restrictions - no farm irrigation, no lawn sprinkling, no car washing, no filling of swimming or paddling pools - the nearby town of Parthenay has warned its citizens that they may run short of tap water by later summer or early autumn.

Deux-Sèvres is one of the three or four worst afflicted areas but a drought has already been declared in 28 of the 94 départements in metropolitan France. Even before the hottest and thirstiest months of the summer, France is running short of water.

This is not a drought as Africans, or even Australians, would recognise the term. The grass has died back but not turned to dust. The trees are in glorious leaf. There are no dead sheep or cows in the fields.

All the same, something odd is happening. Many of the worst-affected areas are along the western seaboard of France - from the Oise north of Paris, to Eure in Normandy to Charente-Maritime around La Rochelle. Many easterly and southerly parts of France are also suffering, but they are more used to dry winters and scorching summers. The départements of the west and centre-west - beloved of British tourists and exiles - are not.

Jacques Dieumegard, 60, a retired science teacher who is in charge of water supplies in the Parthenay area, said: "We always used to teach that France was a temperate country. Now, with a run of hot summers and dry winters, with periods of drought but also periods of intense cold, tropical downpours of rain and flash floods in the south, the experts are beginning to ask whether France can still be described as temperate." A study by weather futurologists at Météo France warned that by the second half of this century stifling summer months, like the August of 2003 that killed 15,000 old people in France, could become the norm.

France has had droughts before. In 1976, sheep and cows did die in the fields. It is impossible to say for certain whether this year is a one-off dry season or a sign of a radical change in rain patterns. Four years ago France had a torrential winter. Since then most winters have been unusually dry, especially in the west.

The great western drought of 2005 - said by many to be worse than 1976 - does, however, fit a wider pattern of climate change, which goes beyond the western seaboard of France. It might have been useful to bring President George Bush to Deux-Sèvres for the G8 summit next week, rather than to the green fairways of Gleneagles.

Wildlife is adapting. Many French swallows and house martins did not bother to emigrate to Africa last winter. For several years now, unusual species of butterfly, normally found in Africa, have been appearing farther and farther north. People find it much harder, especially farmers. In the great western drought of 2005, farmers are among the worst-hit victims. They are also, according to some local campaigners, the greatest water- hogging villains.

Farmers are not responsible for the change in the weather. They are, however, partly responsible for the acute shortage of water and especially the disastrous fall in the level of underground water-tables in some parts of western France.

Deux-Sèvres, like many neighbouring départements, used to be animal-rearing country, with small fields, hedges and trees. In the rocky centre of the département that pattern remains. In the south and east, however, there has been a steady conversion in the past two decades to large fields growing wheat and maize to take advantage of subsidies for cereals farming.

Maize, especially, demands huge amounts of water - about 1,000 cubic metres, or two-thirds of an Olympic-sized swimming pool, for every acre. Long, humped-back watering machines, metallic Loch Ness monsters, have become a familiar sight in northern and western France in the past 20 years.

In the summer months in Deux-Sèvres in a "normal" year, farmers use twice as much water as domestic consumers. Just under half of all the water used in France is now taken by farmers (not including private farm ponds and wells, which further lower the water table.)

Cereal-growers have been banned from using public water supplies in Deux-Sèvres since April. Many took the public-spirited decision not to plant maize this year after the dry winter and spring. Others, less far-sighted, are furious, staring at their stunted maize fields and complaining that farmers in neighbouring areas are being allowed to irrigate regardless.

Several cereal farmers in Deux-Sèvres refused to speak to me, partly because I was British and they regarded me as an emissary of Tony Blair. Beyond that, they said, they were too angry to speak to an unsympathetic press, British or French.

Jean-Pierre, a 50-something farmer, south of Parthenay said: "There is a lot of resentment. Many people are talking about violence but I don't see how that would help us. We are not asking for the right to use water to make big profits. We accept that some maize fields are done for. We only want to grow enough maize to feed our own animals in the winter. Otherwise, I don't see how some of us can survive."

Some local environmental activists are calling for a permanent ban on farm irrigation on Deux-Sèvres. Even moderate local politicians, such as M. Dieumegard, say that it is time for farmers to accept their part in responsibility for the acuteness of the drought.

"The change in farming methods has had two effects," M. Dieumegarde said. "Water tables have been pumped out faster than they used to be. But the larger fields for cereal farming have also meant the building of more elaborate and efficient systems of field drainage. That means much of the rain that does fall runs off straight into streams, rivers and then the sea, rather than sinking into the sub-soil and the water tables, which supply reservoirs such as Cebron."

Jean-Louis Chamard, 52, the sheep farmer with the "grilled" meadows, west of Parthenay, accepts there is "some truth" in this argument. He does not grow maize; his rocky terrain does not permit it. He is already feeding his winter supplies of hay to his 1,200 ewes and 800 lambs.

"There is nothing for them in the fields," he said. "There has been a little rain this week but the soil is so dry that the rain just vanishes on contact. It would take 10 days of continuous rain to bring some grass back. If that does not happen, we will have used all of our winter feed in the summer and we will be in serious difficulties."

M. Chamard, a local farm union activist, says it is easier to point the finger at cereal farmers than to offer an alternative. The movement to bigger farms means that growers have to earn larger amounts each year to pay off their loans. It would not be possible for all farmers in Deux-Sèvres to go back to animal rearing (for which the profits, and EU subsidies, are smaller).

"It is all very well for ecologists and others to say irrigation should be banned," M. Chamard said. "Maybe some restrictions are justified, but 20 per cent of the jobs in this département depend on farming, directly or indirectly. What is going to replace those?"

The reverse side of that argument is that 80 per cent of jobs in Deux-Sèvres - one of the least urbanised départements in France - do not depend on agriculture. Forty years ago, the figures would have been reversed.

Even in small towns such as Partnenay, whose prosperity depends partly on the farmland all around, there is much resentment of farmers. Isabelle, a 35-year-old mother of three, emerging from a local supermarket, said: "My friend told me that farmers were still watering their fields at night, while we're not supposed to fill a paddling pool for our kids. That's not right."

Similar rumours and resentments abound. Government helicopters are passing overhead, it is said, to spot people hosing their lawns or washing their cars. (Not so, apparently).

In Niort, in the south of the département, the relegated, semi-professional football club faces a tough start to the season in the fourth division next month. The grass on their pitch, in the municipal stadium, has died. The town refused to ask for an exemption from the hose-pipe ban. "Preserving water must be the priority," the town hall says.

The tensions within Deux-Sèvres suggest that farmers can no longer expect to get their own way politically in France - not even in La France profonde. One up to Mr Blair. On the other hand, if permanent climate change becomes reality, the present arguments about agricultural subsidies may come to seem quaint and academic in the years ahead.

The whole pattern of our agriculture will have to change, from Africa to northern Europe. The problems of irrigating maize fields in Deux-Sèvres may be a harbinger of much greater problems of food production still to come. And food, as we know, is not just an issue for farmers.