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It’s been a hot, dry summer for much of Europe. The water level on the Rhine River, Western Europe’s most important waterway, is at a record low, too shallow for many ships to pass. This is a big problem for Germany, which depends on the river for 80% of its water freight. NPR’s Rob Schmitz reports.
AUTOMATED VOICE: Dear guests, welcome you on board our cruise boat, Deutsches Eck.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: As captain Stefan Merkelbach navigates his tour boat down the Rhine River through the town of Koblenz, passengers take pictures of the medieval castles and fortresses along the banks. But he’s got his eye on the depth gauge, which hovers at around 5 feet deep.
STEFAN MERKELBACH: (Through interpreter) We can still sail from Koblenz, but we’ve got several moorings we can no longer stop at because the water is too shallow.
SCHMITZ: Typically, this stretch of the river is 10 to 20 feet deep.
MERKELBACH: (Through interpreter) It’s less of a problem for us pleasure cruises, but freight ships and tankers are having problems. Ships that usually take 2,400 metric tons of freight are now taking only a fifth of that so they don’t run aground. That’s a massive reduction in load.
SCHMITZ: And 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.
ADRIAN SCHMID-BRETON: So different things are being shipped on the Rhine – minerals and steel and oil and gas.
SCHMITZ: Adrian Schmid-Breton is a scientist at the Commission for the Protection of the Rhine. His commission estimates that this year’s low water levels happen, on average, once every 20 years. The problem is, the last time this happened was just four years ago.
SCHMID-BRETON: In 2018, the biggest a low flow event prior to this year, the German industry lost about 2.5 billion euros.
SCHMITZ: This year, companies are scrambling to carry freight aboard trucks instead, but it’s not enough. One barge of grain, for example, takes 40 trucks to carry. Researcher Guido Baldi at the German Institute for Economic Research says the flow of one of the most vital commodities, coal, is in jeopardy, and that could have severe consequences for Europe’s biggest economy.
GUIDO BALDI: (Through interpreter) 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.
SCHMITZ: Baldi estimates this will lead to Germany’s economic output falling half a percent in the third quarter.
BALDI: (Through interpreter) This is particularly problematic now, as Germany attempts to wean itself off Russian gas and needs coal plants as a backup. If the transport of coal is hindered, we’ll see electricity shortages starting in September.
SCHMITZ: Baldi says drought, war and supply chain bottlenecks are sending Europe’s biggest economy into a nosedive towards recession. Back on the Rhine, scientist Schmid-Breton says the environmental impact of this drought is equally bad. He says less water and warmer water is trouble for fish like Atlantic salmon, which were just reintroduced to the river.
SCHMID-BRETON: But because of low water, they cannot reach the spawning sites. So they have to do emergency spawning. That means they lose their eggs, let’s say.
SCHMITZ: And with less water in the river, the concentration of pollutants rises, he says, 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 . Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Koblenz.
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