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KOBLENZ, Germany — As ship captain Stefan Merkelbach navigates his Rhine River tour boat through the city of Koblenz, passengers snap photos of medieval castles and fortresses along the banks. Merkelbach does, however, have his eye on the ship’s depth gauge, which is hovering about 5 feet deep. In a normal year, this stretch of the river is between 10 and 20 feet deep.
“We can still sail from Koblenz, but we have several anchorages at which we can no longer stop because the water is too shallow,” he explains. “If it continues like this, some parts of the river will be closed to navigation, which I have never experienced.”
Europe’s hot, dry summer means the water level of the Rhine, Western Europe’s most important waterway, is at an all time high, making it too shallow for many ships to pass – a problem for a country that depends on the river for 80% of its sea freight. Millions of tonnes of goods pass through the Rhine and the shipping disruptions are sure to further impact the German economy, already reeling from global supply chain disruptions and record energy costs resulting from the invasion. of Ukraine by Russia.
“It’s less of a problem for us pleasure cruisers, but cargo ships and tankers have problems,” says Merkelbach. “Vessels that usually carry 2,400 metric tons of cargo are now only carrying 500 tons so they don’t run aground – that’s a massive load reduction.”
For this stretch of the river, that means more ships carrying less cargo, drifting on a rapidly receding brown rock shore topped with dead grass and withering trees.
“Normally you see these huge container ships carrying goods from Rotterdam,” says Adrian Schmid-Breton of the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine. “But I haven’t seen those ships on the river for weeks.”
Instead, Schmid-Breton says, companies choose to send fewer goods on more ships, leading to a more congested river. His commission estimates that low water levels occur, on average, once every 20 years. But the last time the Rhine was this low was just four years ago, in 2018. That year, Schmid-Breton says, German industry lost nearly $3 billion. that the goods could not reach their destinations. Frankfurt Airport, one of the busiest in the world, saw jet fuel deliveries dwindle that year because companies were unable to deliver fuel by ship.
This year, companies are scrambling to transport goods on trucks instead. But that’s not enough: it would take 40 trucks to transport the grain that a barge can normally transport.
The flow of one of Europe’s most vital commodities, coal, is under threat, which could have serious consequences for Europe’s largest economy. “If there are problems transporting coal on the Rhine, we will see shortages at coal-fired power stations in September, and they may not be able to generate electricity,” says Guido Baldi, a searcher with the German Institute for Economic Research.
He predicts that a coal shortage – in addition to ongoing global supply chain problems – will cause German economic output to fall 0.5% in the third quarter. “It’s particularly problematic now, when Germany is trying to wean itself off Russian gas and needs coal-fired power plants as backup,” Baldi said. “If coal transportation is hampered, we will see power shortages from September.”
Baldi says drought, war and supply chain bottlenecks are throwing Europe’s biggest economy into a dive into recession.
Schmid-Breton, of the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine, says the environmental impact of this drought is just as bad. He says less water, which is warming to warmer temperatures, is a problem for fish like Atlantic salmon, which have just been reintroduced to the river. “Due to lack of water, they cannot reach their spawning sites,” he says. “So they have to do an emergency spawn. That means they will lose their eggs.”
And with less water in the river, the concentration of pollutants increases, he adds, which will further impact every animal that lives along the river.
Schmid-Breton is encouraged by the rain in the forecast this week, but he says the region will need two to three weeks of heavy and regular rain for the Rhine to return to normal – unlikely, as this region is heading towards which is usually the driest. season.
Esme Nicholson contributed to this report from Berlin.