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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 July, 2003, 01:13 GMT 02:13 UK
Drought leaves Europe's farmers helpless
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Europe is aflame, with little prospect of any imminent change in the weather to cool it off.

French cattle   AFP
We've never had this kind of drought in 50 years
Mauro Pinelli
People have died in forest fires, and firefighters across the continent are fully stretched.

The forecast for Rome and Lisbon is 37C, for Athens 33C, and no respite is in sight.

For Europe's farmers, totally dependent on the weather, the outlook is dire, and remedies are few.

The European Union has begun to act. Its agriculture ministers debated the drought a week ago, at the insistence of two of the worst-affected countries, Austria and France.

Emergency help

The EU's rotating presidency is held by another badly-hit member, Italy.

Click below to see rainfall levels in Europe, April-June 2003

The ministers agreed to release some of their stored grain to feed animals at risk from the drought. A quantity of rice has already been provided.

They also agreed to bring forward some of the normal payments which farmers were expecting, to tide them over.

Farmers usually receive about 50% of certain EU payments in advance, but in exceptional circumstances this can be increased to 80%, as it was during the UK's foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.

But these are the only two sorts of EU help on offer at the moment. There has been no discussion yet of possible disaster relief.

Parched fields

From the farmers' organisations come stories of serious and growing problems, with few solutions to try.

Jean-Michel Delmas works for FNSEA (Federation Nationale des Syndicats d'Exploitants Agricoles), a trades union representing French farmers.

He told BBC News Online: "The situation is very serious, especially in the centre of France around the Massif Central.

"It's cattle country, but there's been no rain since March, and the grass is burnt brown. The farmers have nothing to give the beasts unless they bring feed in from Paris.

Unanswered prayers

"It's bad in the north-east of the country as well. But horticulture, fruit and arable crops are not so badly off - there's water for them.

Wilting sunflowers   AFP
Sunflowers feel the heat
"The drought is completely unexpected. Every month the farmers have been hoping for more rain, but getting less."

Mauro Pinelli works for the Italian farmers' organisation Coldiretti (Confederazione Nazionale Coltivatori Diretti).

He told BBC News Online: "We think the volume of wine we produce will be about the same as in 2002, which was a low year - but the quality should be up.

"Other crops are a disaster, especially soya, corn and sugar beet. All across the most fertile region, the Po valley in northern Italy, it's terrible.

"The crops need a lot of water. But there's already competition between domestic, industrial and farming users of what water there is.

"The authorities are trying to increase the water levels in the rivers by releasing reserves from the mountains, but they've managed only something like two or three centimetres more.

UK grain gain

"Nobody expected anything like this, even with the prospect of climate change. We've never had this kind of drought in 50 years."

A cross-Europe farmers' organisation based in Brussels, Copa-Cogeca, says the drought has had "truly catastrophic consequences" for farmers in Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain, France and Portugal, and in some of the countries preparing to join the EU.

It has launched a survey of just how bad the problem is, but will have no results until September, because of the long August break.

In the UK, by contrast, the National Farmers' Union said the hot summer meant the wheat harvest was likely to start at least a week early.

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23 May 03  |  South Asia


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