As Europe bakes in a heatwave, about 14 1/2 inches of water are now all that’s preventing parts of the continent from being effectively cut-off from supplies of vital commodities.
That’s the gap — just under the height of a bowling pin — between the current water level at a key bottleneck on the Rhine in western Germany and the point at which barges can usefully navigate the river. A further drop is forecast for tomorrow — though it’s less than two inches.
The current 77 centimeter (30 inches) water level at the bottleneck, called Kaub, is the lowest seasonally since at least 2007. If it drops a further 37 centimeters or more, it becomes uneconomical for barges carrying commodities to sail past this point, according to Joerg Belz, a representative for Germany’s Federal Institute for Hydrology.
Millions of tons of commodities are shipped up and down the Rhine, which flows for roughly 800 miles (1,288-kilometers) from Switzerland to the North Sea.
The lack of water is already hampering the shipment of coal and oil products up the river. Historical data show that Kaub’s water level tends to keep on falling from now until early October.
In reality, barges may be able to pass through Kaub when the water is at 40 centimeters, or even lower — but the tiny amount of cargo they will be able to carry will mean it’s not worth the journey, given the costs of fuel, crew and other expenses, Belz said.