Just after sunrise, Capt. Frank Sep turned to his ship’s radio for the defining news of his day: the water level in Kaub, the shallowest part of the middle section of the Rhine River, Germany’s most important shipping route.
The news was bad, as it so often is these days. One of the longest dry spells on record has left parts of the Rhine at record-low levels for months, forcing freighters to reduce their cargo or stop plying the river altogether.
Some inland ports are idle, and it is estimated that millions of tons of goods are having to be transported by rail or road.
Virtually all freight shipped from seaports in the Netherlands and Belgium to the industrial southwest of Germany passes through here.
On a day in late October, Sep learned that the river was just 10 inches deep. That meant the water in the shipping channel dredged near the center of the river was about 5 feet deep, down from an average of about 11 feet. Even with cargo at one-third its usual weight, his 282-foot freighter would have only inches of water under its hull.
An exceptionally dry summer has caused havoc across Europe. A trade group in Germany put farmers’ losses at several billion dollars. The German chemical giant BASF had to decrease production at one of its plants over the summer because the Rhine, whose water it uses to cool production, was too low.
Roughly 80 percent of the 223 million tons of cargo transported by ship in Germany each year travels the Rhine, which links the country’s industrial heartland to Belgium, the Netherlands and the North Sea. An exact tally of how much is being diverted to rail and road is not yet available, but “it is a significant number,” said Martyn Douglas of the German Federal Environment Agency.
The shipping lane could be made deeper, but that would take years, if not decades, and would cost millions. And even if that were to succeed, it would remove only one bottleneck on a river that is just starting to show how many trouble spots it has.
同段最後一句 plying the river 的ply一字，指「定期往返於兩點之間 」。