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KOBLENZ, Germany — As ship’s captain Stefan Merkelbach navigates his tour boat down the Rhine through the city of Koblenz, passengers snap photos of medieval castles and fortresses along the banks. However, Merkelbach is keeping an eye on the ship’s depth gauge, which is hovering at about 5 feet deep. In a normal year, this section of the river is between 10 and 20 feet deep.
“We can still sail from Koblenz, but we have several berths where we can’t stop because the water is too shallow,” he says. “If this continues, parts of the river will be closed to shipping, I’ve never experienced that before.”
The hot, dry summer in Europe means water levels on the Rhine, Western Europe’s main waterway, are at a record low, making it too shallow for many ships to navigate – a problem for a country 80% owned by the river depends on its water freight. Millions of tons of raw materials are moved through the Rhine, and ship disruptions are sure to continue to affect the German economy, already hit by global supply chain disruptions and record-high energy costs due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“It’s less of a problem for us leisure cruisers, but cargo ships and tankers have problems,” says Merkelbach. “Ships that would normally carry 2,400 tons of cargo now only carry 500 tons so they don’t run aground – that’s a massive reduction in cargo.”
For this stretch of river, that means more ships with fewer goods drifting past a rapidly receding bank of brown rock topped by dead grass and wilted trees.
“You normally see these huge container ships with 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, says Schmid-Breton, companies are opting to ship fewer goods on more ships, resulting in a more congested flow. His commission estimates that low water occurs on average once every 20 years. But the last time the Rhine was that deep was just four years ago, in 2018. That year, says Schmid-Breton, German industry lost nearly $3 billion as goods could not reach their destination. Frankfurt Airport, one of the busiest in the world, saw fewer kerosene shipments this year because companies couldn’t ship fuel by boat.
This year, companies are scrambling to move cargo aboard trucks instead. But that’s not all: it would take 40 trucks to move the grain that a barge could normally carry.
The flow of one of life’s most important raw materials, coal, is at risk and this could have serious consequences for Europe’s largest economy. “If there are problems transporting coal on the Rhine, in September we will see bottlenecks at coal-fired power plants that may not be able to generate electricity,” says Guido Baldi, a researcher at the German Institute for Economic Research.
He predicts that coal shortages — on top of ongoing global supply chain woes — will cause Germany’s economic output to fall 0.5% in the third quarter. “This is particularly problematic now that Germany is trying to wean itself off Russian gas and needs coal-fired power plants as a backup,” says Baldi. “If the transportation of coal is hampered, we will see power shortages from September.”
Baldi says drought, war and supply chain shortages are sending Europe’s largest economy into a nosedive towards 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 heating up to warmer temperatures is a problem for fish like Atlantic salmon, which have just been reintroduced into the river. “Because of low water, they can’t reach their spawning grounds,” he says. “So they have to emergency spawn. That means they lose their eggs.”
And with less water in the river, the concentration of pollutants will increase, he adds, which will further affect all wildlife living along the river.
Schmid-Breton is encouraged in the forecast by rain this week, but he says the region will need two to three weeks of heavy, steady rain for the Rhine to return to normal – unlikely as this region is heading for what typically the driest season.
Esme Nicholson contributed to this report from Berlin.