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Europe: Rains Bring Only Slight Relief For Drought-Stricken Continent

By Antoine Blua and Kathleen Knox

Rain has brought relief to some parts of Europe that have been sweltering in a summer heat wave. But unless it keeps falling, the rain will do little to ease the impact of a drought that is killing crops and creating the conditions for forest fires.

Prague, 18 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Rain has been something of a scarcity in Europe in recent weeks.

The summer heat wave has seen temperatures soar to nearly 40 Celsius in some parts of France and Italy. Even Britain, where summers are usually on the damp and chilly side, has been baking.

But while the sweltering heat's been a boon for tourists and vacationers, it's caused some serious concern about crop failures and forest fires.

Farmers in Hungary and Slovakia are already counting the cost of a damaged harvest.

Cows in Switzerland had to be moved from dried-up meadows for the first time in over 25 years.

There's been water rationing in parts of France and in northern Italy, that country's agricultural heartland, as the level of the River Po sank to record lows.

Italy's civil protection chief, Guido Bertolaso, said it's an "unprecedented crisis" that's prompted the government to consider opening up dams in the Alps to refill the Po.

People are also feeling the drought in their wallets, as prices have also soared, fruit seller Martha Giampi told Reuters.

"We don't have enough produce for the demand and prices have gone up, but this is due to the frost in spring and to the drought now."

The drought even prompted the bishop of one afflicted Italian town to pray for rain. His prayers were answered yesterday -- not in Italy, but in Germany and France.

But the relief from the heat appears only temporary.

Patrick Galois of the French weather service forecasts a return to high temperatures this weekend. And he says the storms won't ease the dangers for France's drought-stricken agriculture.

"Unfortunately, [it's not enough]. The recent storms -- although they were dramatic -- have not improved the dryness situation. The storm rains are intense but fall for a short period. They do not have time to penetrate the soil. They stream. This cannot be a relief for the vegetation."

He says it could even get worse in the coming weeks.

"For the moment dryness is already worrying. And it could become dramatic in the following weeks particularly if summer keeps going on its initial path. Anyway the dryness that has installed itself since spring will not disappear. One will have to wait until autumn to see the situation really improved."

It's all a stark contrast to last summer's floods, which ravaged large parts of central Europe.

Tim Osborn is a climatologist at Britain's University of East Anglia.

He says the floods and this year's heat wave are both possibly linked to global warming. He says Europe's average rainfall looks likely to fall and that Europe will probably see more heat waves as temperatures rise.

"The likelihood for Europe is that average rainfall in summer will actually go down, but in recent studies we've actually looked at extreme rainfall events with dry and wet extremes and although the average goes down in the models, there's occasional very high rainfall events. So, on average, it's possible we may get fewer wet summers interspersed with very occasional but very heavy rainfall events that could cause floods."

So who knows, next year Europeans may be deluged -- or praying for rain again.