France in crisis as drought deepens: minister

PARIS Tue May 17, 2011 2:24pm EDT

Dust rises from a field as a tractor works the dry earth in Blecourt, northern France, May 12, 2011. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Dust rises from a field as a tractor works the dry earth in Blecourt, northern France, May 12, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol

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PARIS (Reuters) - France has imposed limits on water consumption in 28 of its 96 administrative departments, the environment ministry said Monday, amid signs that a prolonged dry spell that has hit grain crops would continue.

"We are already in a situation of crisis. The situation is like what we would expect in July for groundwater levels, river flows and snow melting," Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet told a press conference.

The government had previously put 27 departments under water consumption limits, and Kosciusko-Morizet said Monday that similar measures could be extended to three more -- effectively affecting a third of the country.

One of the hottest and driest Aprils on record in France has parched farmland and cut water reserves, stoking worries of a drought similar to that experienced in 1976 and fuelling concern harvests will suffer in the European Union's top grain producer.

No substantial rainfall is expected in the next two weeks, weather expert Michele Blanchard told Monday's press conference.

In an interview with Reuters Insider, Meteo France forecaster Michel Daloz said that temperatures would also rise sharply in the next week, boosting groundwater evaporation.

"It would really need a miracle, which is three weeks of heavy rain after the coming 8-10 days (of a dry spell), to hope to make up for some of the deficit," Daloz said.

Total rainfall in April amounted to barely 29 percent of the average established over the 1971-2000 period, the ministry said in a report, adding that soils in the northern part of the country were experiencing the driest conditions in 50 years.

"Rainfalls in coming weeks will be crucial," Kosciusko-Morizet said, adding that a wet month of July alone would not be enough to turn the situation around.

"From a weather point of view the month of June is the last chance of rain. After that, it's summertime and all of France is dry, even the showers that fall in July and August don't bring much water," Daloz said.

Two thirds of French groundwater reserves were down year on year in April, while the remaining 34 percent were stable or up.

France has lost any prospect of a very good wheat crop this year as the lack of water hit plants at an advanced development stage, but the French farm office said last week it was too early to translate drought-related worries into yield loss numbers.

Last week, French Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire called on the European Union to ease some environmental requirements in light of measures the French government wants to take to help animal breeders, hurt by surging grain prices.

Drought concerns in several countries in Europe, including Germany and Poland, combined with weather worries in other key producing regions such as the United States, have lent support to grain markets, helping them soften the blow of a recent global commodity sell-off sparked by economic growth concerns.

(Reporting by Gerard Bon, Marie Maitre and Sybille de La Hamaide; editing by Anthony Barker)

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