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Wed, Jul 30, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Heat wave, drought are crippling European economy

AP , BUCHAREST, ROMANIA

A heat wave and a drought are gouging a multibillion-dollar hole into Europe's economy, crippling shipping, shriveling crops and driving up the cost of electricity.

In Romania, dredgers dug into the Danube on Monday to deepen the river bed for hundreds of stalled barges, while in Croatia, 5 tons of dead fish polluted a lake.

Levels on the Danube were under 1.8m near Bazias in southwestern Romania, more than 91cm below the minimum needed for barge traffic.

Upstream on the Danube, ships traveling from Austria to Germany were not carrying full loads because of low water levels. The drought also affected barge traffic on other rivers -- the Elbe was impassable despite some weekend rain, and the Rhine was only deep enough to support lightly loaded boats. Many goods normally moving on the Elbe between Hamburg and the Czech Republic were offloaded and put on trucks.

Hartmut Rhein, of Germany's Deutsche Binneschifffahrt AG, said the increased costs of using trucks or canals instead of normal river traffic will mean higher prices for heavy equipment, scrap metal, building materials and grain.

Although there were no shortages yet, some shipments are "just taking longer and getting more expensive," Rhein said.

The worst drought in years, brought on by a prolonged heat wave that has kept temperatures well above 30?C for weeks, agriculture ministers from the EU were demanding compensation from EU headquarters for affected farmers.

Farm lobby groups in the EU say the drought has cost more than US$5.7 billion in losses. Hardest hit within the EU have been Italy, France, Germany, Portugal and Austria, where farmers' representatives warn of harvests up to 60 percent below normal yields for some crops.

Lack of rain beyond occasional brief thunderstorms also has slashed crops outside the EU -- in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia and Romania. In Hungary alone, the government estimated drought-induced agricultural losses at about US$434 million as corn stalks wither and fruit orchard leaves turn yellow.

After weeks of forest fires, dipping river levels and lack of rain, the drought made front-page news in parts of Europe.

"France is thirsty," read the lead story of Le Figaro newspaper Monday, as residents coped with limits on car washing, watering lawns and filling swimming pools.

In Italy, where a heat wave and accompanying drought have lasted weeks, the national grid was overloaded by the use of air conditioners, causing summer blackouts for the first time in over 20 years.

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