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Suburban Sprawl Sapping Mediterranean's Water

Rampant development brings ecological peril to Europe. Burgeoning population upsets a delicate balance and an ancient heritage.

October 05, 2003|Mort Rosenblum | Associated Press Writer

ST. TROPEZ, France — All through the fires of a long hot summer, as black smoke blotted out herb-scented hills of the Cote d'Azur, the steady whump-whump of lawn sprinklers never missed a beat.

Grapevines died of thirst and sun-baked olive trees languished on outlying farmland, yet behind the gates of St. Tropez villas, lush green grass grew so thick that mushrooms poked through.

At Parc de St. Tropez, where 150 vacation homes sit by the sea, uncontrolled private wells tap a fast-dwindling aquifer, saving city water charges. One estate of rolling gardens has five wells.

In town, classier cafes air-condition outdoor tables, a la Palm Springs, spraying mists of cool water from overhead jets.

The extremes are evident here in Brigitte Bardot country, where cascades of vibrant bougainvillea are as much a trademark as bare bosoms on the beach. But St. Tropez is hardly unique.

From Gibraltar to Greece, rampant construction and runaway development are making over the face of the Mediterranean, bringing ecological catastrophe to ancient ways of life.

At a pace that is sometimes even greater than in the American Southwest, burgeoning populations with ever-growing water demands are upsetting a delicate balance.

All year long, families from Europe and beyond move into new homes equipped with swimming pools and gardens full of exotic plants.

In some places, irreplaceable underground fossil water, hundreds of thousands of years old, is squandered and natural vegetation is permanently lost.

In others, the sprawl of cheap subdivisions and bleak high-rises stamps out cultural heritage that dates back to ancient Phoenicians and Romans.

"It can't go on like this very long," said Samy Maasaoui, a water dowser who each day sees more similarity to the moonscapes of North Africa, from which his well-digger father emigrated.

To him, southern France is a bellwether for a future world. When water gets scarce, he expects it to go to the highest bidder. And those who can afford it are likely to waste it.

"Twenty years ago, we could almost always strike water at 20 or 30 meters [about 60 to 90 feet]," he said. "Now, it's not unusual to pass 160, 200 meters and find nothing."

Greek Environment Minister Vasso Papandreou told a recent European Union meeting that neither the public nor governments seemed to realize the urgency of managing water and growth.

"Not only in Greece but also everywhere else, if anyone worries about the danger, they believe it is something for the distant future," she said. "This is a big problem."

A dwindling water supply is one crisis for some of the most gentle and generous landscapes on the planet. Another is the speculators and developers who are paving over paradise.

Hillsides are ripped away to make way for golf courses, greenhouse farming and communities that include thousands of homes. Freeways and high-speed rail tracks slice through ancient fields.

According to the World Conservation Union, about 115,000 square miles of the European Mediterranean are turning to desert because of mismanagement and overexploitation. This affects the livelihood of 16.5 million people, not counting the millions more who converge on the region each summer, it says.

John Thorne of King's College in London conducted a decade-long survey of Mediterranean desertification for the European Community, and found the same local patterns repeated on a grand scale.

"This pace of development is simply not sustainable," he said in an interview. In parts of Spain and Italy, damage from soil erosion is already irreversible, Thorne said. Ecosystems are changing. The extremes near Murcia in southern Spain "are so horrendous, they're off the map," he said.

Julia Martinez of the University of Murcia avoids the term "desertification" because it suggests a natural process. "The trouble is not nature; it is people," she said.

Soil erosion plagues large areas of badlands, Martinez said, but the most costly damage is from paving over rich lands near rivers and canals, and stripping once-productive hillsides.

The warm, dry days feed a huge leisure and retirement industry, comparable to the U.S. Sun Belt. As the EU erases internal boundaries, northern Europeans can borrow money at home for a private haven or take a job with no visa needed.

Americans come to settle under the Tuscan sun or spend their year in Provence. Russian mobsters pay bags of cash for property on the Spanish coast or French Riviera.

St. Tropez's year-round population remains steady near 6,000, but up to 6 million visit the area each year -- many coming to their second homes. The coastal region of Languedoc-Roussillon is growing three times faster than the rest of France.

Spain now outranks France as the most popular destination for Europeans on vacation -- more than 50 million a year -- and most of those are headed for the Mediterranean.

Newcomers disrupt complex Mediterranean systems of irrigation canals, firebreaks and winter sheep pastures that have sustained family farms for millenniums.

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