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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

Huge supermarkets and furniture outlets line broad new roads. Golden arches announce fast food for people too hurried to dawdle over daube or pistou.

John Wainwright, an erosion specialist at King's College, said destruction of old terraces and catchments means that topsoil built up over centuries can wash away in a single season.

Also, he said, overuse of aquifers near the coast is causing seawater to penetrate in a number of places, polluting the underground reservoirs.

Roger Martin's family has watched the change over at least six generations, farming and tending olives near the village of Ampus, north of here.

"We have lost our contact with the land, with the sense we all had that this is fragile country which we must work together to protect," Martin said.

While scientists have come slowly to agree that global warming and abrupt weather patterns are real, old-timers like the Martins have watched the reality up close.

Farmers all along the Mediterranean know that the vital question is not total rainfall but its pattern: how much falls when, and at what intensity. Season after season, the answers are unsettling.

Martin's son, Eric, oversees 3,000 olive trees at an estate north of St. Tropez. After the trees struggled through the hottest summer in memory this year, a hailstorm stripped them bare.

Now his wife, Lucie, fears that her annual truffle hunt will also be a disaster. Experts predict that the Mediterranean winter harvest of the treasured black fungus will be 70% less than last year's.

As in the United States, drying forests are in peril. Helped by arsonists and careless residents, fires destroyed tens of thousands of acres in France this summer, including huge expanses near St. Tropez.

In France and Italy alone, the loss to farmers may approach $10 billion.

Over the winter, it was floods. Deluges overflowed built-up riverbanks and ran off vast paved areas that once absorbed heavy rainfall. Dozens of people were killed, and old farms were washed away.

France is far better off than Spain or Italy. The 505-mile Rhone waters its center, snow from the Alps and Pyrenees feed aquifers, and the Canal de Provence supplies much of the south.

Still, stark pictures suggest a fearful future.

Treille, perched on a mountain near Marseille, is where Marcel Pagnol imagined his classic novel "Jean de Florette." In it, a girl done wrong paralyzes the village by blocking off its spring.

Today, unblocked, the spring emits a mere trickle. A nearby village's 200-year-old chestnut tree just died because the water table is too low for its roots.

Rhone Valley farmers may have plenty of water, as do those along well-maintained irrigation canals. But where the land starts to climb, they are dependent on groundwater wells.

Even when water remains at its old levels, the demand is often so much higher that sources simply run dry. With the balance so precarious, drought can spell calamity.

By midsummer, the Po, which waters much of northern Italy, had dwindled to a trickle. Most European rivers suffered. The Danube dropped so low that scuttled German tanks from World War II suddenly surfaced.

Pressure on the land has worsened in recent years because European Union subsidies encourage water-intensive agriculture in places too dry to support it.

And now, global weather patterns are compounding the damage with alarming regularity.

Geoff Love, an Australian who just left the U.N. World Meteorological Organization after years as secretary of the 1,500-member Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is worried.

"We've reached the point where we are modifying the climate, and we have to manage the impact because we have taken out the major feedback systems," he said. "Nature can't take care of itself."

For example, he said, land erosion and dried-out fields are forcing animals to migrate north, but they are blocked by freeways and new construction. As a result, many die.

Wild fruits and plant species are vanishing in places where they once flourished.

Love predicted that the climate-change panel's fourth assessment, due in 2007, would focus on regional rather than planetary warming, and he called the northern Mediterranean an area of serious concern.

"This is a grinding, slow, drying-out process," he said. At the same time, he added, "when change occurs, it is with dramatic extremes." In short, he said, droughts and floods may be routine.

Experts discuss such solutions as channeling water off the Rhone to supply Catalonia in Spain. But even then, only users connected to a grid would benefit. Isolated areas would suffer.

Coastal regions might build plants to desalinate sea water. But these require valuable seaside land and large investments, and can't provide enough water for agriculture.

The only real answer, specialists say, is what is already being done across the Mediterranean in North Africa: to find ways of sharing water among cities, vacation complexes, farms and industrial users. But people who work every day at the practical level are dubious.

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