French drought looms after boom in swimming pools

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The Independent Online

A boom in private swimming pools in France is helping create a water shortage which could be acute in some regions this summer.

A boom in private swimming pools in France is helping create a water shortage which could be acute in some regions this summer.

France has more swimming pools per head than any country other than the United States. Sales have more than doubled in the past four years, boosted by a fall in prices and the heatwave in the summer of 2003.

Campaigners complain that a trend towards cheap, collapsible or stand-up pools is especially wasteful of water. Pools of that kind are harder to keep clean than sunken pools and are filled and refilled several times each summer.

There are thought to be 70,000 back-garden swimming pools in the Ile-de-France - the greater Paris area - alone. Although the price of all kinds of pools has fallen sharply in the past 25 years, the boom in private pools puts in perspective France's vision of itself as a country suffering from acute economic pain. The rapid spread of the suburban pool is one factor - although far from the only factor - in the water shortage which threatens France this summer, according to Monique Chotard, founder of the Centre d'Information sur L'eau (national water information centre).

Mme Chotard also points to the increased use of hoses as gardening becomes more popular.

Nationwide, however, the greatest contributors to the deepening water crisis are French farmers. The area of land which is intensively farmed and irrigated, to grow fruit, vegetables and maize, has increased from one million acres in 1955 to four million acres in 2000.

After a winter and spring of unusually low rainfall, especially in the west of France, 26 départements (counties) have already introduced advisory or compulsory restrictions on the use of water. The drought-stricken areas include a broad belt of départements from southern Brittany to the coastal plain in the south-west, where water has traditionally not been too much of a problem.

With meteorologists predicting another hot and dry summer - although not necessarily to the heights of 2003 - acute water shortages are likely to be widespread before the end of next month.

The département of Charente in west-central France - the home of Cognac brandy - already fears an agricultural and ecological catastrophe if the summer proves as dry as predicted. The Environment Minister, Nelly Olin, visiting the area this week, said that situation was "fragile" and "very tense".

In theory, France should not have a deficit of water. Rainfall provides the country with 173 billion cubic metres of water each year. The demand for water is no more than 34 billion cubic metres.

But the nationwide figures cover up acute regional problems, especially in the south and west, where much of the intensively cultivated farm land is concentrated.