About 20 ships were queued up in Germany’s crisis-struck Rhine river on Wednesday as a ship broke down in a busy shipping lane.
River traffic was closed in the Middle Rhine after a ship with a 1,660-ton load dropped anchor after an engine failure, police said.
“The berths are full all the way to Mainz” (about 50 kilometers or 31 miles from the affected area), a spokesperson for the Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration told the Reuters news agency.
The ship was eventually towed out.
River traffic on the key shipping route has already been severely hampered in recent weeks by low water levels, with ships either unable to sail or forced to carry a quarter of their normal capacity to avoid running aground.
Water levels have dropped as part of a Europe-wide drought. Climate change has made extreme weather, including heatwaves and droughts, more likely.
Conditions are expected to improve in the coming days, with rain forecast to raise levels by as much as 50 centimeters (20 inches).
The Kaub gauge was at 34 centimeters on Wednesday — just barely above the minimum level to allow relatively unladen ships to pass.
The shipping headaches have reignited calls for dredging in the area.
“The navigation channel there urgently needs to be deepened so that it is possible to keep inland shipping running even at low water levels,” Germany Federal Transport Minister Volker Wissing told public broadcaster ARD.
Deepening the channel by 20 centimeters would take until the early 2030s, he said, and cost about €180 million ($183 million).
His plan was criticized by North Rhine-Westphalia State Environment Minister Oliver Krischer, who said that a deeper navigation channel won’t help if the river no longer carries any water. Instead he called for additional funding for other solutions, such as promoting ships with a shallower draft.
“We need to adapt ships to the Rhine, not the other way around,” he said.
On Tuesday, industry leaders in Germany sounded the alarm on low water levels, saying chemical, steel and other industrial plants would soon be forced to shut down due to transport problems.
As well as restricting transport, low water levels impact power plants that need water for cooling — a problem that is getting particularly grave for France’s nuclear plants. Hydropower plants are also affected by a lack of river flow and low reservoirs.
Shifting freight to road and rail is hampered by existing rail network problems and a lack of drivers. However, the German government is working to prioritize coal transport by rail to ensure stable energy supplies.
On Wednesday, the German Raiffeisen Association announced that it is expecting considerable damage to the corn harvest, due to the drought. Losses of almost 600,000 tons of grain maize are to be expected — around 15 percent of the originally forecast harvest. Other crops are being affected by high transport prices.
Water crisis across Europe
In Switzerland, the country where the Rhine river originates, many lakes are at their lowest level for an August, according to the environment ministry.
Lakes Constance, Lucerne, Lugano and Walen are all at record lows, while Lakes Zug and Maggiore are well below average.
In France, the Loire river has been greatly reduced by the record drought, with vast stretches of sand banks where water once flowed.
“The Loire’s tributaries are completely dried up. It is unprecedented,” Eric Sauquet, who is head of hydrology at France’s National Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Environment (INRAE), told Reuters news agency. “We have to worry about the Loire.”
The low levels have been disastrous for river fish and their predators, and have also impacted the tourist trade.
It has also raised the prospect of more nuclear power plants shutting down due to a lack of cooling water.
“Climate change is underway, it’s undeniable … All users will have to re-think their behavior with respect to water resources,” Sauquet said.
In Serbia, residents of the its second-largest city of Novi Sad have been wading across the Danube in a stretch normally reserved for a cargo ships and tourist boats.
The river, which passes through 10 countries, has receded to a narrow, waist-high dredged lane in the city.
“We have deployed almost (our) entire (dredging) capacity … We are struggling to keep out waterways navigable along their full length,” Veljko Kovacevic, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transportation, told the Reuters news agency.
Serbian meteorological data shows that water levels are less than half their normal August levels in the Danube, as well as the Sava — the country’s other major navigable waterway. This has severely affected the transport of coal and threatened wildlife and fisheries.
In Bosnia, a major utility operator has called on the government to ban electricity exports until the end of September so it could guarantee regular supplies.
Italy’s largest lake, Lake Garda, is suffering from a 15-year low. And the River Po is struggling through the worst drought in 70 years, severely affecting farmers.
aw/dj (Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa)
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