The French Drought: THE 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

Article excerpt

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 dpartement of Deux-Svres, 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 dpartement 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-Svres is one of the three or four worst afflicted areas but a drought has already been declared in 28 of the 94 dpartements 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 dpartements 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 Mto 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-Svres 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. …