French farms feel heat in drought alert

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The severe drought plaguing French agriculture has provoked a row between maize farmers and oyster growers, with both groups fighting over dwindling supplies of water.

With half of France's départements on drought alert, the situation looks particularly critical in the west of the country, where the fresh water of the Charente river, south of La Rochelle, is as treasured by farmers growing oysters on the Atlantic seabed as by those cultivating maize inland.

"The sea is too saline. We need the river water, but the maize farmers are continuing to draw from it to water their crops, even during the day," said François Patsouris, president of the Poitou-Charentes Oyster Farmers' Association.

"We all need water," countered Bruno Dumont Saint Priest, a maize farmer and president of the FDSEA agriculture union. "The problem is resource management."

The Agriculture Minister, Dominique Bussereau, came down on the side of the oyster farmers of Marennes-Oléron who not only supply French seafood platters but also export larvae to much of Europe. M. Bussereau ordered 400,000 cubic metres of freshwater to be released from the Breuil Magné dam into the Charente river.

M. Patsouris admitted that the measure stood a good chance of saving this year's late-summer oyster crop. But he still felt it was a freshwater drop in an ocean of trouble.

"The Charente is not just a source of freshwater," he said. "Combined with the seawater, its minerals provide crucial nutrients to oysters, fish and mussels. Most importantly, the mixture, if it comes at the right time, allows oyster larvae to develop."

Poitou-Charentes has one of the worst water problems in France; the region has faced water restrictions every summer for the past 10 years.

M Patsouris said that, in the past three years of heatwaves and lack of rainfall, the salinity in the Marennes-Oléron basin had exceeded 34 grams per litre on several occasions - a level at which oyster larvae begin to die.

Last year, French oyster farmers' production was down by 30 per cent compared with 2004. Maize production in the region has also fallen but only by 10 per cent over the past 10 years. M. Patsouris suggested that the Poitou-Charentes region, headed by the Socialist presidential hopeful Ségolène Royal, had opted to favour the tourism sector over agriculture. "Tourism generates €1.2bn (£800m) and is estimated to draw only 10 to 15 per cent of the water used in the region. The agriculture sector (including maize and oysters) uses five or six times as much water but is only worth €100m," he said.

The oyster growers of Marennes-Oléron are not alone in feeling the pinch. Last month's heatwave starved the Mediterranean of oxygen, reportedly leading to the loss of 10 tons of oysters - or half the usual July crop - in Languedoc-Roussillon.

The presence of toxic algae in Normandy and Brittany last month led to several local bans on oyster and mussel-picking. In June and July, similar bans were briefly put in place in the bay of Arcachon, near Bordeaux.

Despite the fears of the oyster farmers, the Environment Ministry said water shortages were less acute than in previous years. A spokesman said that spring rains had been good and that "the quality of drinking water in France is better than at the same time last year".