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Shallow Rhine River has a devastating effect on commercial traffic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A hot, dry summer in Europe has made parts of the Rhine River too shallow for many cargo ships. The Rhine is the most important river in Western Europe. It runs through a German industrial region, among other places, and more than 300 million tons of goods are supposed to move on its waters each year. NPR's Rob Schmitz has been walking the banks of the Rhine. Hey there, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How's it look?

SCHMITZ: Well, yesterday I visited the city of Koblenz, which is located around the midpoint on the Rhine. And normally at this time of year, the river there is between 10 and 20 feet deep at its deepest point. Today, at its deepest point, it's only around five feet deep.

INSKEEP: Wow.

SCHMITZ: So if you're taller than maybe 5-7 or so, you can wade to the middle of one of Europe's biggest rivers, and it's shallow enough for you to stand up at its deepest point. I stood at the bank of the river with a scientist for the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine, Adrian Schmid-Breton, and he said in a normal year, we'd see all sorts of goods being carried along the river.

ADRIAN SCHMID-BRETON: Minerals and steel and oil and gas. And here they are, carrying so many containers from the sea, from Rotterdam. So it's the most important shipping navigation lane in Europe. Eight hundred kilometers, from Switzerland to the North Sea in the Netherlands, is navigable - normally navigable. But nowadays, this is not the case.

INSKEEP: Rob, I just have to ask. You're a pretty tall guy. Did you try to wade to the middle of the river to test the depth?

SCHMITZ: (Laughter) I didn't.

INSKEEP: OK, that's fine. That's fine. You don't have to do participatory journalism. But it's only five feet deep. I'm guessing that shipping must be close to a standstill.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, one would think. But in fact, Steve, boat traffic was busier than ever yesterday. And that's because all of the companies that need to transport their goods - whether it's coal, gas, oil or grain - they've been forced to fill more ships with less product in order to give the ships enough clearance so that they don't run aground in places like Koblenz. So that means that incredibly, there is now more ship traffic, but each ship has around a fifth of the goods that they typically carry.

INSKEEP: Oh, one-fifth. Does that mean there is a limit to how far people can stretch things?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, there definitely is. Ships can only carry so much when the river is this low. So the goods that don't fit on a ship are now being carried over land by truck or by train. Neither of those modes of transport can carry what a barge can though. So for example, it takes 40 trucks to carry one bargeful (ph) of grain. So that means that the cost of all these goods, Steve, is rising very fast. And in this era of rapid inflation, it's going to be worse for this part of Europe. A British economic firm estimates the low water level on the Rhine will equal 0.2 percentage points of reduced economic growth for Germany for the rest of the year.

INSKEEP: Wow. What does the low water mean for the ecology?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, biologists have been trying to reintroduce Atlantic salmon to the Rhine River. So this situation is terrible for them, as they swim upriver to spawn. They have to do so in less water, in warmer water, and there's less space for them as they contend with big ships. Scientists say that this year's water levels happen, on average, once every 20 years. The problem is the last time this happened was 2018, just four years ago. So that's another problem. The scientists I spoke to told me that they are reassessing how they measure this because it's becoming clear that these climate extremes - whether it's flooding or droughts - are happening more often.

INSKEEP: Any chance of rain?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, rain is actually in the forecast this week, and that will certainly help. But scientists I've spoken to say the region would need around three weeks of steady, heavy rain within the next two months for the Rhine to return to a normal level. And unfortunately, that is not in the cards. The long-term forecast for the region is pretty dry as it heads into what is typically the driest season for the river.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz is in Cologne, Germany. Thanks so much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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.