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Germany's Rhine is at one of its lowest levels. That's trouble for the top EU economy

A boat is pictured on the shallow Rhine river near Oestrich Winkel, western Germany, on Aug. 12, as the water level passed below 40 centimeters, making ship transport increasingly difficult.
Yann Schreiber
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AFP via Getty Images
A boat is pictured on the shallow Rhine river near Oestrich Winkel, western Germany, on Aug. 12, as the water level passed below 40 centimeters, making ship transport increasingly difficult.

KOBLENZ, Germany — As ship captain Stefan Merkelbach navigates his tour boat down the Rhine River through the town of Koblenz, passengers take pictures of medieval castles and fortresses along the banks. Merkelbach's got his eye, though, on the ship's depth gauge, which hovers at around 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've got several moorings we can no longer stop at because the water is too shallow," he says. "If it continues like this, parts of the river will be shut to shipping, something I've never experienced."

Europe's hot, dry summer means that the water level on the Rhine, Western Europe's most important waterway, is at a record low, making it too shallow for many ships to pass — a problem for a country that depends on the river for 80% of its water freight. Millions of tons of commodities are moved through the Rhine and shipping disruptions are certain to further impact Germany's economy, already reeling from global supply chain disruptions and record high energy costs stemming from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Tourist boats along the shore of the Rhine in the German city of Koblenz are still operating with the low water levels on the river, but they've had to stop mooring at several locations due to the lack of water.
Rob Schmitz / NPR
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NPR
Tourist boats along the shore of the Rhine in the German city of Koblenz are still operating with the low water levels on the river, but they've had to stop mooring at several locations due to the lack of water.

"It's less of a problem for us pleasure cruises, but freight ships and tankers are having problems," says Merkelbach. "Ships that usually take 2,400 metric tons of freight are now taking only 500 tons so they don't run aground — that's a massive reduction in load."

For this stretch of the river, that means more ships carrying fewer goods, drifting by a rapidly receding shore of brown rocks topped by 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 in weeks."

Adrian Schmid-Breton is a scientist at the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine. He says the low water level on the Rhine this year happens, on average, once every 20 years. But the last time this happened was four years ago.
Rob Schmitz / NPR
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NPR
Adrian Schmid-Breton is a scientist at the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine. He says the low water level on the Rhine this year happens, on average, once every 20 years. But the last time this happened was four years ago.

Instead, says Schmid-Breton, companies are opting to send fewer goods on more ships, leading to a more congested river. His commission estimates that low water levels happen, 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 as goods weren't able to reach their destinations. Frankfurt Airport, one of the world's busiest, saw reduced jet fuel deliveries that year because companies weren't able to deliver fuel by boat.

This year, companies are scrambling to carry freight aboard trucks instead. But it's not enough: It would take 40 trucks to carry the grain that one barge normally could.

The Koblenz city gauge house shows the point at which the water rose to during an historic flood in the year 651. This year, there is only 5 feet of water at the deepest point in the river near Koblenz.
Rob Schmitz / NPR
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NPR
The Koblenz city gauge house shows the point at which the water rose to during an historic flood in the year 651. This year, there is only 5 feet of water at the deepest point in the river near Koblenz.

The flow of one of the most vital commodities, coal, is in jeopardy, and that could have severe consequences for Europe's biggest economy. "If there are problems transporting coal on the Rhine, we'll see shortages at coal-fired power plants in September, and they may not be able to generate electricity," says Guido Baldi, a researcher with the German Institute for Economic Research.

He predicts a coal shortage — in addition to ongoing global supply chain problems — will lead to Germany's economic output falling 0.5% in the third quarter. "This is particularly problematic now, as Germany attempts to wean itself off Russian gas and needs coal plants as a backup," Baldi says. "If the transport of coal is hindered, we'll see electricity shortages starting in September."

Baldi says drought, war and supply chain bottlenecks are sending Europe's biggest economy into a nosedive toward recession.

Schmid-Breton, of the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine, says the environmental impact of this drought is equally bad. He says less water, that is heating up to warmer temperatures, is trouble for fish like Atlantic salmon, which were just reintroduced to the river. "Because of low water, they cannot reach their spawning sites," he says. "So they have to do emergency spawning. That means they will lose their eggs."

And with less water in the river, the concentration of pollutants rises, he adds, which will have an additional impact on every animal that lives along the river.

Schmid-Breton is encouraged by rain in the forecast this week, but he says the region will need two to three weeks of heavy, steady rain for the Rhine to return to normal — not likely, as this region heads into what is typically its driest season.

A container ship passes Pfalzgrafenstein Castle in the middle of the Rhine River in Kaub, Germany, Aug. 12. The Rhine carries low water after a long drought period.
Michael Probst / AP
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AP
A container ship passes Pfalzgrafenstein Castle in the middle of the Rhine River in Kaub, Germany, Aug. 12. The Rhine carries low water after a long drought period.

Esme Nicholson contributed to this report from Berlin.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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