Within Europe, Germany is majorly affected by this particular drought, notwithstanding the droughts of 2018 and 2020. This year is certainly the worst. Viewing a map of Europe reveals that Germany is among the top countries to have serious vegetation stress following soil moisture and vegetation deficit. In surface area affected Hungary is probably in first place, followed by Portugal, Spain and then possibly Germany.
Germany among the top countries to be affected
Measuring the severity of the drought in Germany or across Europe depends on the choice of criteria to be measured. Typically, most people would perhaps mention lack of rain as the first obvious characteristic. However, the other factors of dryness of soil, dryness of vegetation, minimal or very poor growth of crops and the lack of water in the ground and in riverbeds all contribute to the overall picture.
These maps below show the impact of the drought at two depths of 1.8 meters and 25cms
Father Rhine, Europe’s busiest river, is running dry
The Rhine is the most significant and busiest river in Western Europe, together with the Danube. It has even been in the news in Britain as a result of this drought. Just how has it been affected? Here are some stories about the effects.
Some 59 ferries cross the Rhine in Germany. Lower the level of the water and the crossing becomes impossible … and perhaps dangerous. The ferry from Altrip to Mannheim has stopped running as the draught is too deep; the propellor, costing about €260k, would be damaged and ruin the company. The result was that employees were forced to take holidays, whilst some dug a deeper channel in the river for the ferry.
Further down the river, in Mannheim, with its many industries, the situation is strongly affected by lower water. Around 80% of inland shipping in Germany uses the Rhine and many sectors depend on goods delivered by water. At one bridge there, police have blocked one section under the bridge because there is not enough water. This forces upriver and downriver barges to use the same section under the bridge, which is potentially hazardous, should two arrive at the same moment.
Less cargo is being carried, with the resultant effects
The main problem is that ships can no longer be fully loaded. Less water underneath the barge means they can only carry 25% of their usual amount, so more journeys are needed, usually three to four more journeys, which in turn leads to extra costs, which in turn leads to higher costs for the end products. The immediate knock-on effect is shortages even though more of the product will be arriving, albeit later.
In Ingelheim, one ferry company has been able to maintain its service. It has been managed over five generations and is 130 years old. The ferry can function because of its specially made design, enabling it to run in low water. The propeller is in the hull, and the ferry has no keel, which means less draught. There’s enough clearance and there is still half a meter of water beneath it. Business is doing well: cars, tourists on bikes all use this crossing as there is no bridge across the river between Mainz and Koblenz, a distance of around 100kms. Further down the Rhine long sandbanks are now visible, there are idle and marooned ships and low water.
For much of the river, particularly in the Gorge, the fairway is only 1m60cms, not deep enough for the massive barges which ply the waters of the Rhine daily between Rotterdam and Basel in Switzerland.
Priority given to goods over passenger trains
In mid-August, the situation was worsening so much that a more drastic action was needed. Hence the announcement that goods trains were to be given priority over passenger trains. Why so? The Rhine is used to transport bulk items or goods such as coal. Coal is needed for the power stations in Southern Germany. Without coal, no electricity would be generated. No electricity means no power for a whole host of infrastructures, including the rail network. Hence the need to send coal by train; one of the main north-south rail routes in Germany travels on either side of the Rhine through the Rhine Gorge.
Flora and Fauna affected too
At the Binger Loch (lit.: Bingen Hole) and downstream, the fluvial environment is in serious danger; where there’s normally 1 meter of water there’s none. So, all living things that cannot retreat into the water will die off as they are left in puddles which eventually dry up. This affects not only small crustaceans but also fish.
With barely any water in the puddles the temperature can reach 35 degrees, which also kills off the living creatures. Furthermore, curious tourists are exploring the new dried-up areas, damaging the flora and fauna. They are taking advantage of no water and walking to the Mäuseturm (Mouse Tower) on a small island. The problem with tourists is that they disturb the environment, and animals not used to human intrusion desert their locations and perhaps will not return to the area. Birds might abandon their nests.
Sinking water level: the Rhine is a life artery for Swiss economy
For Switzerland the Rhine is also of significant importance: 8% of imported goods arrive by this route. Apart from cars, building materials, stones and foods the freighters carry 40% of oil.
At Kaub (the castle in the middle of the Rhine, indirectly important for Britain: General Blücher crossed the Rhine here to come to the assistance of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo) the water level is at 30cms, but the channel for barges is actually deeper. Boats with a usual capacity of 2,000 to 3,000 tonnes can only carry 600 to 900 tonnes.
Transport costs have risen from about 30 to 260 Francs per tonne. So that has had an immediate effect on the cost of petrol in Switzerland.
Transloading at the three Rhine harbours in Basel has decreased by 18% in the first half-year, thus allowing 2.311 620 tonnes to arrive by water. Were the water route no longer possible, goods would have to be conveyed by road or rail. Cargo barge traffic is already at its limit. Transport by road is well-nigh impossible. A large freighter-barge would need replacing by 22 lorries each of 40 tonne capacity. The implications for the first half-year would have meant that around 58,000 lorries would be needed. Hence the need to increase rail transport.