Shippers brace for worst as Rhine levels near critical

Shipping companies are ready to stop freight transport on the Rhine as water levels Germany’s longest river approached a critical low on Saturday.

A persistent drought affecting much of Europe lowered rivers such as the Rhine, preventing large ships laden with heavy loads from passing key waypoints and forcing them to use smaller vessels or split cargo into multiple shipments.

At a bottleneck, near the town of Kaub on the Middle Rhine, an official gauge measured the water level at 37 centimeters (14.6 inches) on Saturday afternoon. Large heavy ships cannot pass if the level drops below 40 centimeters (15.7 in).

While the depth of the shipping lane at Kaub was still around 150 centimeters (59 inches), experts say passage becomes difficult even for light or specially adapted freighters if water levels fall below 35 centimeters (14 inches) to the gauge mark. A reading below 30 centimeters (11.8 inches) is considered impassable.

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Maritime authorities predict that point could be reached early next week, although it is unclear whether water levels will reach the record high of 25 centimeters measured at the Kaub gauge in October 2018.

Logistics company Contargo said on Friday it was preparing to halt shipping on the Upper and Middle Rhine for safety reasons and planned to transfer some of its cargo to trucks.

However, road and rail freight capacity is limited.

Businesses along the Rhine that rely on ships to receive raw materials and deliver finished goods are expected to face delays and shortages. Coal-fired power plants and petrol stations could also experience supply shortages, if navigation on the Rhine is interrupted.

Meteorologists are predicting rain in the coming days, although it is unclear whether that would be enough to prevent water levels on the Rhine from dropping to a point that affects navigation.

In Italy, authorities have allowed more water from Lake Garda to flow into local parched rivers like the Po that farmers use to irrigate crops. Combined with Italy’s worst drought in decades, the largest lake in the country approaching its lowest water level on record.

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