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31 May 2011

Europe's dry spring could lead to power blackouts, governments warn
One of the driest springs ever recorded in northern Europe could lead to power blackouts this summer, with nuclear reactors going offline because of low river levels. The exceptionally dry weather will also raise food prices and has already forced water restrictions on millions of people, say governments, farm groups and meteorological organisations across the continent.

Large parts of southern Britain, northern France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and other northern and eastern European countries have had their driest three-month spells in more than 50 years, receiving just 25-60% of their long-term average rainfall since February. This has led to parched soils and difficult growing conditions for farmers, as well as to river levels that are dangerously low for wildlife.

Patchy rain has moistened soils in parts of northern Britain, France and Germany over the past few weeks, but with summer approaching and temperatures soaring to over 30C in France, it is not expected that any rains will compensate for months of exceptionally dry weather.

Last week the European Union warned that soils were now "critically dry" in six countries. The French wheat harvest is now expected to be 11.5%-13% down on average despite an increase in the area planted this year and German output is expected to fall 7-9%. In south-east England, many farmers expect crops to fail dramatically unless steady rains come soon.

Dry weather may cut grain and oilseed yields by as much as 20%, said Allan Wilkinson, head of agriculture for HSBC Bank. "The cost of commodities is going to generally be higher, and this weather issue is going to exaggerate that," he said. Last week wheat prices rose in Chicago for two days running on the expectation that dry weather has hurt crops in France, Germany and the UK, and the UN warned that rising food prices risked riots in developing countries. On Monday, Oxfam said the average price of staple foods would more than double in the next 20 years.

France, the EU's biggest wheat producer, has made 90m available to drought-hit farmers and applied for advance financial help from the EU. More than half the country's regional departments have imposed restrictions on extracting water which has led to roads being blockaded by farmers.

Christiane Lambert, president of the largest French farm union, the Fdration Nationale des Syndicats d'Exploitants Agricoles (FNSEA), said: "The situation is deteriorating. Temperatures are rising and we are still only getting sporadic rain. The biggest problem is with cattle. There is no grass for them and the price of hay has risen dramatically. Farmers are beginning to sell their cattle to avoid paying for their food. Now the vegetable and fruit crops have come a month early which means that they coincide with harvests from Spain and north Africa so the price is very low. This is a major crisis. People are very worried. If there is no decent rain now the situation will be dramatic by the end of the summer".

"We are already in a crisis situation. It is like what we would expect in July for groundwater levels, river flows and snow melting," said French environment minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who set up a high-level group this month to assess the damage from the driest spring on record.

In Britain, where some reservoirs are now down to 40% of their capacity and rivers in south-east England have been at historically low levels, water companies are preparing to impose hosepipe bans and other restrictions if heavy rains do not occur in the next few weeks. Across the UK, April had just 52% of the average rainfall for the month , while many areas experienced their driest springs for over 50 years.

The drought has led to some of Europe's lowest river levels recorded in more than 100 years. According to the German Federal Hydrological Agency, ships on Europe's two biggest rivers, the Rhine and Danube, are being forced to sail 50-80% empty because they are having problems navigating such low rivers. The Danube's water levels sunk to a 100- year low for the month of May in Austria. Similar problems have been reported in Germany. Car maker Ford said last week that it would cut down on using ships to transport its products, if the river levels continue to fall.

Concern is now mounting that some of Europe's nuclear reactors may be forced to temporarily close within months if there is not substantially increased rainfall. Most of France's nuclear stations rely on river water to cool them and falling rivers could force closure. EDF, which operates 58 reactors, has said it will delay maintenance work on its reactors near the Channel and Atlantic Ocean this summer to ensure electricity in case its riverside plants have to shut as they did in 2003 during a heatwave.

"EDF remains vigilant. France is undergoing an exceptional drought which has led us to reinforce surveillance in particular of its nuclear, thermal and hydropower plants", said an EDF spokesman. The situation could be made worse if Switzerland tries to maintain the water level of Lake Geneva by adjusting flows into the Rhone River, as this would reduce flows in France and affect reactors.

So far the dry conditions have not caused blackouts, but EDF has said that it lost 2.1 terawat (trillion) -hours of hydro electric power in the past three months because of low water levels. Water reservoirs for electricity production are now 54% full, 10 percentage points below the same week last year and nine points lower than in 2009. France gets about 20% of its power capacity from running water through turbines.

The dry conditions mean some regions are also prone to fires. For example, dune fires broke out in the coastal parts of the Netherlands at the start of May. In some north-eastern parts of Germany, the Forest Fire Danger Index has reached its highest possible level.

Observers said that a trend towards drier springs appeared to be gathering. This years's drought in April follows exceptionally dry years in 2007, 2009 and 2010. "2011 was up to now one of the driest 10 years in nearly whole Switzerland since 1864. April 2011 was one of the 10 driest April months in Germany since 1881, in continuation of similarly dry April months in 2007, 2009 and 2010. Last winter was very dry in western Europe", said a spokesman for the World Meteorological Organisation.

Farmers' stories:

George Combeau, Angoulme, France: "I have 100ha of maize, wheat and barley. The ground is like iron and the drought is biting hard. We have had our second-hottest April since 1900 and the driest spring since 1953 with just 15mm of rain in the past two months. Usually we would get four times that amount in just a month. Now the temperatures are increasing fast and it is very serious. The local authority imposed water restrictions on us one month ago. The maize has germinated but it is very thirsty. It can be saved if it rains for a long while, but I think the wheat crop is very badly damaged and we will be lucky to get half what we would expect. The farmers who have cattle are in a desperate situation. They cannot afford hay and they have started to sell their cattle. We are told we can expect only irregular rain. I fear it will be catastrophic".

George Dunn, Winchester, England: "I am a tenant farmer of 600 acres near Winchester, growing wheat, barley and oats and have some cattle and sheep. There's been a bit of rain recently but not nearly enough. It's too late now for many crops. Some farmers have destroyed their spring barley crop and replanted. We can expect the wheat harvest to be 10-20% down and the barley to be 30% down. It will get very serious soon for livestock farmers. They have nothing to fall back on. We're starting to see farmers selling their cattle so they don't have to feed them. The numbers of animals going to abattoirs is increasing. The price of wheat is going up but most farmers have already sold a lot of their harvest [on the future markets] in advance for a low price".

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