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Water Shortages & Heat Threaten Retirement Homes 2004-06-15

Posted by clype in Articles of Interest, Europe.
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Local wine, olive groves, the sun slowly setting over an azurian sky.

Ever since Mr.Peter Mayle first brought us the charms of his rural Mediterranean idyll in the mid-1980s the dream of owning a place in the sun has been a cherished ambition for Britain’s middle classes.

But for many who have been persuaded by the Mediterranean’s mosaic of sun-washed villages, pine-clad coves and clear golden waters, their dream is getting hot.

Dangerously hot. Last year (2003) more than 23 000 people lost their lives across Europe as an unprecedented heatwave reduced major rivers to a trickle in Italy, turned southern France into an inferno of forest fires and sent people in Germany to their deaths from heatstroke. In Spain, hotter summers mean more water shortages, and it’s serious.

The 1 000-year-old ‘Tribunal de las Aguas’ in Valencia, one of the oldest courts in Europe, settles irrigation disputes from the orchards and fields along the nearby Turia River that spills into the Mediterranean.

Last year (2003) it was over-run by disputes as the chronic water shortages caused chaos, and with another hot summer in sight, the lines are firmly split, with dry, arid southern Spain pitted against the lush and moist north.

So with the weather getting hotter, will we go on viewing the Mediterranean as our holiday and ex-pat destination of choice? According to Mr.David Viner, senior research scientist at the climate research unit in ‘The University of East Anglia’, probably not.

‘In terms of holiday homes the big factors are heat, electricity production, forest fires and water shortage.

‘It is a very serious issue that has not been addressed by society itself.

‘We know climate change is a problem but it is not really perceived as a problem in the major tourist regions,’ he says.

‘One of the issues in Spain and other parts of Europe last year was power cuts caused by excessive demands for air conditioning so the Spanish electricity system fell over a number of times.

‘Temperatures are increasing year on year, and the knock-on effect is that we are going to see more extreme heat waves.

‘We should not be too surprised when the “next 2003” comes along, as temperatures are rising every year.’

But despite the increasing threat of water shortages, forest fires and power cuts, Britain’s love affair with the Continent shows no sign of abating.

In 2002, about 125 000 Britons moved permanently to other European Union countries, according to ‘The Office for National Statistics’.

One fifth moved to work in cities, with 100 000 settling elsewhere, mainly in coastal Spain and rural France. The French authorities say that more than 350 000 homes in France are British-owned while the Spanish government says foreign owners outnumber Spanish residents in nine out of 15 coastal areas.

Estate agents estimate that in the same 12-month period another 130 000 Britons bought European holiday homes for occasional use, again mostly in Spain and France but also in Italy and Portugal.

Ms.Angela Deadman, a corporate travel director, has recently purchased a property in the South of France for her retirement. She says heat and water played an important factor in choosing her farmhouse near Perpignan.

‘The weather was definitely a concern because when I was in France looking at properties it was extremely hot and it became a consideration.

‘Where we have chosen, 45 minutes west of Perpignan, we are in the foothills of the Pyrenees so we fortunately get snow in the winter and the climate can be similar to the UK.

‘So I am not too worried about water shortages or extreme temperatures, but I would be if I was looking in the South of France.

‘A trend we have seen in the travel industry is that people are now going on their summer break to Europe earlier in the year or later in the year and are avoiding the summer months.

‘When I was buying there were more advertisements for properties in middle France and the Dordogne area. ‘There are not a lot of advertisements for properties in the South of France.’

It is a trend Ms.Beth Edgell of ‘VEF’, a leading French property estate agents, has noticed. She says that the market has not noticed a decline in sales yet but people are moving towards the middle of the country, where it is not as hot.

‘There still seems to be as many people buying — if not more — than a year ago. People are looking elsewhere. The Limousin in central France is one area where we have seen an upsurge and similarly in the Dordogne,’ she says.

Mr.Viner says a good analogy for the future is last summer, when Europe witnessed extremely hot temperatures with France and Spain seeing record-breaking temperatures.

‘The whole of northern Europe was under a very severe heat wave,’ he says.

‘The World Health Organisation attributed over 25 000 deaths to the heat wave in Europe last year and that is a phenomenally large scale human disaster if you put it in the context that last year alone only 25 000 died around the world of flooding.

‘In short, we had a major human disaster that was relatively unreported because of its disperse nature.’

One of the most dramatic features of the summer was the hot nights, especially in the first half of 2003-08.

In Paris, the temperature never fell below 23C at all between 2003-08-07/14, and the city recorded its warmest-ever night on 2003-08-11/12, when the mercury did not drop below 25.5C.

Yesterday (2004-06-14) in Spain temperatures reached 24C — nine degrees hotter than the Canary Islands. Spain’s water war, which has been building for a decade, has raised more fundamental problems about the deteriorating lands along the Mediterranean where the climate is turning measurably hotter and drier. Coastal zones stretching all the way from Portugal and Spain to Italy and Greece, have been transformed by huge tourist resorts, apartment complexes and golf courses demanding more and more water in a region already chronically short. The effects are most notable in the hinterlands where agricultural lands of old are being reclassified as arid. Forest fires and water rationing have become commonplace but have not dented the pace of development or the rise in population. Mr.Carlos Arribas, a physicist with Ecologists in Action, which is made up of 300 local and regional associations, says:

‘The fundamental question is what type of development is realistic for southern Spain or any region that is semi-arid — that’s the debate we need but we haven’t had.’

Along the coast of Valencia, on the east of the country, and a broad swath of land to the south, including much of eastern Andalusia, water is not only scarce but even dwindling because of droughts, illegal boreholes and squandering. This region wants a share from Spain’s well-watered and verdant north, and farmers and developers have lobbied for years for a large-scale, cross-country delivery system. But confrontations have continued over the plan, which would divert one sixth of the water from the Ebro, sending it south via 600 miles of canals and pipelines, numerous pumping stations and more than 100 new dams and reservoirs.

But are we really likely to give up our ex-pat Mediterranean idylls in favour of a log cabin in Iceland? One theory is that the 21st century climate change will see an increasingly sophisticated buyer move towards owning property in Europe’s less well known regions. Mr.John Lennon, professor of tourism development at ‘Glasgow Caledonian University’, says:

‘Competition is very diverse and very significant now, people are looking to take more and more adventurous holidays further and further afield.

‘Long haul has become much more acceptable as the main break for people.

‘Where a generation ago families would travel to Spain, now they are much more likely to explore America or Thailand.’

It is a factor noticed by Ms.Deadman.

‘The difference between Europe and “the States” is that any property you buy in “the States” comes with a pool and air conditioning. I am putting in a small pool in the garden because I know how hot it can get,’ she says.

Much more likely, adds Mr.Viner, is that people will look at Continental Europe as a destination for a different part of the year. In the future, people will buy second homes in Spain and France to live in the winter while moving back to the UK in the summer.

‘In the climate research unit we have calculated the band of temperature which is most comfortable for tourists.

‘We refer to it as the “tourism comfort feeling”.

‘Predictive work shows that in the future in July and August, tourists in Spain will not be feeling comfortable.’

In Spain, the new Socialist government has not set out its water policy, but officials say that their strategy will focus on better use of available resources, rather than water transfers.

‘There will be funding for desalinating plants, for treating and recycling urban water and installing modern irrigation methods,’ Mr.Arribas says.

Mr.Vicente Nacher, the president of Valencia’s ancient water tribunal, may also have to start paying for watering the beets, onions, garlic and potatoes he has grown for 55 years.

‘That would not be fair,’ he said, insisting that the water-rich north should share its abundance with the south.

‘We are used to sharing. But now water has become big politics.’

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