A YEAR OF vastly reduced rainfall means France is already feeling the effects of drought with water restrictions in eight departments.
Hopes for increased rain during the past autumn and winter came to nothing and, nationally, France is now 25% below normal rainfall levels - with the Hérault hardest hit at 90% down and the prefecture reporting water courses at low levels normally only seen in June or July.
Only the region Provence-Alpes-Côtes d'Azur saw normal rains.
Water and weather experts have met industry groups in the Commission de Suivi Hydrologique at the Ecology Ministry to look into the problem as the rain deficit hit levels not seen since 2005.
The déficit pluviométrique in 2005 reached 26%, which was, however, still short of 1973 when it reached 28% and 1989 when it hit 29%.
Farming groups are worried that the lack of rain will hit this year's grain harvest, with a reduced wheat crop in what is Europe's leading wheat-growing country.
The rural life group Confédération Paysanne has called on the government to take urgent measures to help.
Ecology Ministry officials - there has been no Ecology Minister since Nathalie Koscuisko-Morizet quit to become spokesman for President Sarkozy's election campaign - said the west of the country was hardest hit and the situation was "worrying" without being "alarming".
Even recent heavy rains across the country will do little to help as they will not soak down into the depleted aquifers and will be taken up by surface crops.
The Commission de Suivi Hydrologique said the lack of rain in the south-west was near the lowest on record for the past 50 years, hitting 35% in Midi-Pyrénées. Toulouse is also badly hit with rain levels reduced by 60%.
In Hérault and Loire-Atlantique water usage has been restricted but there are restrictions on taking water from rivers, streams and aquifers in eight departments.
Departments affected by restrictions are: Charente, Charente-Maritime, Eure-et-Loir, Gard, Hérault, Seine-et-Marne, Deux-Sèvres, Tarn, Vienne and Essonne.
The departments of Ardèche, Ile-et-Vilaine, Lozère and Pyrénées-Orientales have been put on alert.
Details of the precise areas with restrictions are available on the Propluvia website available through this link.