Shipping companies prepared to halt the transport of goods on the Rhine as water levels in Germany’s biggest river neared a critically low point Saturday.
An ongoing drought affecting much of Europe has lowered rivers such as the Rhine, preventing large ships with heavy loads from passing key waypoints and forcing them to use smaller vessels or to split cargoes into multiple shipments.
At one 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. Big, heavy ships can’t pass if the level falls below 40 centimeters (15.7 inches).
While the depth of the shipping lane in Kaub was still about 150 centimeters (59 inches), experts say passage becomes tricky even for light or specially adapted cargo ships if water levels fall below 35 centimeters (14 inches) at the gauge mark. A reading below 30 centimeters (11.8 inches) is considered unpassable.
Shipping authorities predict that point could be reached early next week, though it is unclear whether water levels will reach the record low of 25 centimeters measured at the Kaub gauge in October 2018.
Logistics company Contargo said Friday that it was preparing to halt shipping on the Upper and Middle Rhine for safety reasons and planned to shift some of its cargo onto trucks.
Road and rail freight capacity is limited, however.
Companies 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 gas stations could also see supply shortages, if shipping on the Rhine is halted.
Meteorologists forecast rain in the coming days, though it was unclear whether it would be enough to keep water levels on the Rhine from dropping to a point that affects shipping.
In Italy, authorities allowed more water from Lake Garda to flow out to parched local rivers like the Po that farmers use to irrigate crops. Combined with Italy’s worst drought in decades, the country’s largest lake is nearing its lowest-ever recorded water level.