KOBLENZ, Germany — As ship captain Stefan Merkelbach navigates his tour boat down the Rhine River through the town of Koblenz, passengers take pictures of medieval castles and fortresses along the banks. Merkelbach's got his eye, though, on the ship's depth gauge, which hovers at around 5 feet deep. In a normal year, this stretch of the river is between 10 and 20 feet deep.

"We can still sail from Koblenz, but we've got several moorings we can no longer stop at because the water is too shallow," he says. "If it continues like this, parts of the river will be shut to shipping, something I've never experienced."

Europe's hot, dry summer means that the water level on the Rhine, Western Europe's most important waterway, is at a record low, making it too shallow for many ships to pass — a problem for a country that depends on the river for 80% of its water freight. Millions of tons of commodities are moved through the Rhine and shipping disruptions are certain to further impact Germany's economy, already reeling from global supply chain disruptions and record high energy costs stemming from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"It's less of a problem for us pleasure cruises, but freight ships and tankers are having problems," says Merkelbach. "Ships that usually take 2,400 metric tons of freight are now taking only 500 tons so they don't run aground — that's a massive reduction in load."

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.

"Normally you see these huge container ships carrying goods from Rotterdam," says Adrian Schmid-Breton of the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine. "But I haven't seen those ships on the river in weeks."

Instead, says Schmid-Breton, companies are opting to send fewer goods on more ships, leading to a more congested river. His commission estimates that low water levels happen, on average, once every 20 years. But the last time the Rhine was this low was just four years ago, in 2018. That year, Schmid-Breton says, German industry lost nearly $3 billion as goods weren't able to reach their destinations. Frankfurt Airport, one of the world's busiest, saw reduced jet fuel deliveries that year because companies weren't able to deliver fuel by boat.

This year, companies are scrambling to carry freight aboard trucks instead. But it's not enough: It would take 40 trucks to carry the grain that one barge normally could.

The flow of one of the most vital commodities, coal, is in jeopardy, and that could have severe consequences for Europe's biggest economy. "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," says Guido Baldi, a researcher with the German Institute for Economic Research.

He predicts a coal shortage — in addition to ongoing global supply chain problems — will lead to Germany's economic output falling 0.5% in the third quarter. "This is particularly problematic now, as Germany attempts to wean itself off Russian gas and needs coal plants as a backup," Baldi says. "If the transport of coal is hindered, we'll see electricity shortages starting in September."

Baldi says drought, war and supply chain bottlenecks are sending Europe's biggest economy into a nosedive toward recession.

Schmid-Breton, of the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine, says the environmental impact of this drought is equally bad. He says less water, that is heating up to warmer temperatures, is trouble for fish like Atlantic salmon, which were just reintroduced to the river. "Because of low water, they cannot reach their spawning sites," he says. "So they have to do emergency spawning. That means they will lose their eggs."

And with less water in the river, the concentration of pollutants rises, he adds, 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.

Esme Nicholson contributed to this report from Berlin.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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